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The Blackhawks-Red Wings rivalry: A lesson in diverging paths

The two teams have had alternating fortunes for nearly three decades now.

Detroit Red Wings v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings have been one of the NHL’s hallmark rivalries as a pair of Original Six franchises that first met on Nov. 24, 1926: a 1-0 win for the then-named Detroit Cougars over the Chicago Black Hawks.

Although the nearly 100-year existence of this rivalry contains a slew of postseason meetings and intense regular-season games, the last three decades or so have seen this rivalry largely exist as a waypoint for organizations that were trending in opposite directions.

Start with the 1992 Stanley Cup Playoffs and a four-game sweep of the division-winning Red Wings by the Blackhawks in the Norris Division finals, capped by this Brent Sutter goal:

Chicago made the Stanley Cup Final that season — losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins — while reaching the high-point of the franchise’s fortunes for about the next two decades. Three years later, the two teams met during the 1995 Western Conference Final and Detroit won in five games before finishing as the runner-up to the New Jersey Devils that year. It would be the last postseason meeting between the teams for 14 years, as the Blackhawks faded into hockey anonymity towards the end of the 90s and into the 2000s while Detroit surged to the top of the league, winning four Stanley Cups between 1997 and 2008.

The Red Wings’ dynasty started falling back down to earth towards the end of the 2000s as Chicago’s arrow began pointing north, and that’s when the last round of substantial clashes between the two teams occurred. First, there was the 2009 Winter Classic, held at Wrigley Field on the first day of that year. Detroit beat Chicago 6-4 in that game, perhaps serving as a sign that the upstart Blackhawks were not quite yet ready for the big stage. Another reminder was dished out during the Blackhawks’ surprising run deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which ended as a 5-game defeat to those same Red Wings in the Western Conference Final.

Detroit and Chicago hovered near the top of the league standings for the next few years, with frequent regular-season meetings that sorted where those teams stood. But an announced divisional realignment meant that the lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season would be the final one with the Red Wings and Blackhawks in the same division.

Of course, the real story from 2013 was a postseason meeting between these two teams, a final chance for the aging Red Wings to exert dominance over a Blackhawks roster seeking the “dynasty” label that Detroit had carried through the prior two decades.

The details could be pored over here but, instead, let’s just skip to the end:

And that was really the last significant game between the Blackhawks and Red Wings. A main portion of that was the aforementioned divisional realignment, which has these two teams in separate conferences. Of course, there was a brief change induced by the pandemic for the 2020 season, which reunited Chicago and Detroit in the Central Division for eight games. With the fortunes of each franchise so far away from their glory days — and the teams back in separate conferences, limiting their regular-season meetings to just two each season — it’s hard to envision any way that this rivalry picks up steam again.

Detroit may be in the early stages of a revival, given all of the young talent on its roster. That includes 2020 No. 4 overall pick Lucas Raymond, who scored a hat trick during Detroit’s 6-3 win over Chicago last Sunday at the United Center — just the sixth game of Raymond’s career. In fact, that game could serve as another confirmation of different trajectories of the two teams. While the Red Wings enjoyed a breakout performance from a top-five pick, Chicago announced the end of its lengthy sellout streak that night, as Detroit fans took over the building in a way that hadn’t happened since the early/mid-2000s:

Chicago lost that game and the next three during an 0-7-2 start to the 2021 season, while off-ice news sent the franchise into a state of chaos and disarray that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon — and cast a shadow over all that success from the prior decade.

So here we are again, with Detroit possibly on its way up and Chicago racing to the bottom: a pair of Original Six franchises with ships once again steering in opposite directions. Combine that trend of the last three decades with the NHL’s current equilibrium of four divisions with eight teams apiece — which diminishes any prospects of future realignments to reunite Detroit and Chicago in the same division — and it appears that this rivalry’s dying embers will only continue to smolder for the foreseeable future.

This post is sponsored by ESPN+