Mike Vernon redeemed himself during run to ’97 Stanley Cup title

Goalie Mike Vernon hoists the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Goalie Mike Vernon hoists the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

He’s almost a forgotten name in Red Wings playoff history. People tend to remember their love for Chris Osgood, or the 2002 contributions of Dominik Hasek, before remembering this netminder.

Ahh, but let’s recall the thundering roar in 1997 when Mike Vernon hoisted the Conn Smythe trophy inside Joe Louis Arena. It was sweet redemption for a goalie who Wings fans wanted to stone in Hart Plaza two years prior.

Heading into the ’97 postseason, Vernon was viewed as another playoff failure along with Tim Cheveldae (1991-’93), Bob Essensa (two games in 1994) and yes, Chris Osgood, whose infamous misplay in Game 7 vs. San Jose in 1994 loomed large, along with his .860 save percentage(!) against Colorado in the 1996 conference finals.

The occupation of a Red Wings goalie was a lightning rod for criticism in the early ’90s, and Vernon certainly caught the wrath of Detroit fans for his performance against New Jersey in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals. Most notably, he allowed four goals in Game 3 through 28:20 of ice time – a miserable, depressing, catastrophic, gloomy scene as the Stanley Cup melted in front of our eyes.

To be fair: New Jersey’s neutral zone trap was a bigger reason why the Wings were swept. The Devils’ suffocating system limited high-quality scoring chances, disrupted the passing lanes and created countless turnovers. The Wings, who were the highest scoring team in the Western Conference and went 12-2 through three rounds of the postseason, suddenly looked like a team skating through mud. (How’s this for suffocation: The Wings offense registered more than 8 shots in one period of the series’ 12 total periods. That one measly period? The third period in Game 3, when the score was already 5-0 Devils.)

“It was one of the better performances I’ve seen against a team,” Detroit coach Scotty Bowman said to the Los Angeles Times.

Still, Vernon was a scapegoat for a city thirsting for its first Stanley Cup title since 1955.

His struggles continued in the 1996 postseason. He split time with Osgood in the first-round victory against the Winnipeg Jets, but was benched for the final four games of the second-round series vs. St. Louis and the entire six-game tilt against Colorado in the conference finals.

It appeared his stock was continuing to drop during the 1996-97 regular season, when Osgood went 23-13-9, while Vernon was just 13-11-8.

However, in a move that came as surprise to everyone other than Bowman, Vernon earned the starting nod for the ’97 postseason.

“I have no idea why Scotty (Bowman) started me in the playoffs,” Vernon admitted Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press. “I didn’t ask him. I haven’t asked him. But I was as shocked as anyone.”

Vernon dropped Game 1 against St. Louis and “same ol’ Red Wings” echoed throughout town. But the Wings won that series in six games, then swept Anaheim in the second round, a series in which Vernon won three overtime games. He stopped all 35 shots he faced in 79:33 of extra playing time.

Next was Colorado, the defending Stanley Cup Champions and arch rivals. He allowed an average of one goal per game in his four victories, including a shutout in Game 4. He held the Avalanche scoreless in Game 6 until Scott Young scored on him with 5:12 left, but Brendan Shanahan sealed a trip to the Cup Finals with a euphoric empty-net goal for a 3-1 victory.

“This team has so much character,” Vernon told Albom. “Now we’re going to the big one.”

At that point, Wings fans were fully hitched to the Vernon bandwagon. He opened the Finals by winning both games in Philadelphia to earn a 2-0 series lead, and went back to Joe Louis Arena before a rollicking, Cup-thirsty crowd. One fan in the lower bowl of The Joe held up a sign that echoed the mindset of the entire Red Wings fan base: “VERNON, I APOLOGIZE.”

It was a city-wide sentiment.

“I saw the sign and I kind of chuckled,” Vernon said to the Associated Press. “I think we all had in the back of our minds two years ago how devastating it was to lose to Jersey. I was just glad that I had the opportunity to prove myself again, and I think we all had that in mind.

“I don’t know who the guy was that did the apologizing, but I accept it.”

Vernon finished the 1997 postseason with a 1.76 goals against average, .927 save percentage and 16-4 record (remember that 13-11-8 regular season mark?) In the Cup finals, he allowed a measly six goals in four games to end the franchise’s 42-year championship drought.

When Gary Bettman presented him with the Conn Smythe Trophy, the Joe Louis Arena crowd roared in collective redemption. Vernon was ecstatic approaching Bettman, as he exulted two arms skyward while Wings fans chanted “VER-NON! VER-NON!”

The scene symbolized the pulse of a passionate fan base. Vernon’s resurrection resonated with Detroit because it exemplified the city’s blue-collar work ethic and passion.

“We’re all Conn Smythe winners in my mind,” Vernon told the Chicago Tribune. “The team in front of me played great.”