In the NHL, nothing pays off as stingily in the collective memory as finishing second. Remember when the New Jersey Devils lost the Cup Final just a few years ago? Of course you don’t remember when the Devils lost the Cup Final back in 2012, unless you’re a big Jersey fan or hardcore about these matters.
Cup winners themselves can be tough to keep track of these days, because we no longer have those large blocks of winning where a team goes for three or four championships in a row, or even just back-to-back. The Blackhawks are the new version of the NHL dynasty, with three Cups already this century, but ask yourself to quickly rattle off who they beat for those championships and you’re going to linger over the query for some extra seconds probably.
But what if you were a would-be dynasty, only you were marooned behind one of those all-timers of a team that we all think of as the ultimate in peerage, so far as historical lineage goes?
The mid-to-late 1970s Canadiens beat up on the Bruins a lot, but that was an Orr-less and Esposito-less Boston squad that had already had a recent glory run. The 1980s Islanders didn’t really have an adversary they regularly puck-blocked on their way to Lord Stanley’s mighty flagon. They did beat the Philadelphia Flyers for their first Cup, a sort of holdover team from the mid-1970s with Hall of Famers like Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber. That unit would lurch on for a few years, until the Hall of Famers retired and a new-look Flyers team emerged in the mid-1980s.
This team was awesome. They also had no bloody chance of winning anything, really. Once the Oilers figured out how to dispose of the Islanders and take up residence on the throne, they were going to be tough to jostle out of the chair, requiring, say, something like Steve Smith’s infamous own-goal against the Flames in 1986. But that Flyers team is one of the coolest we have in league history and certainly one of the pluckiest, most character-laden.
At the time, teams that made the Cup Final tended to be rammed with future HOF’ers. There were exceptions, like when someone went on a crazy spring run—the ’82 Canucks, say, which had as many Hall of Famers on it as your tub had in it earlier today when you took your morning shower.
The Flyers reached the Final in 1984-85, thanks largely to backstop Pelle Lindbergh, a kind of Swedish Dominik Hasek, and a savant of agility. The roster was loaded with B to B+ players, some of whom were having A- runs in their careers which wouldn’t last long. They weren’t totally dissimilar to the 2004 Detroit Pistons, only sans a championship.
Lindbergh died the next year in a tragic car crash, Bob Froese—basically a career back-up, and certainly one of the half dozen best career back-ups in league history—played admirably in net, and the team racked up more than 100 points, but were jettisoned from the big dance by the Rangers in the first round.
But: when a star goalie dies early in the year and you still go on to be one of the best regular season teams in the league, a first round dispatching is pretty easy to overlook. Life, man—it’s a bear. Sometimes what you achieve on top of pressing on gamely from loss is simply a bonus.
But then we have the following campaign, when the Flyers’ regular season success dipped, but they became a nearly impossible out in the playoffs. Do you know who Alexander Ovechkin is right now? He’s a far less efficient version of someone like the Flyers’ Tim Kerr, who potted 58 goals that year. There may be no better power play sniper ever, and that includes Ovie, Bossy, Espo, anyone you can name.
Kerr was the ultimate Behemoth of the Slot. Dave Poulin was the captain and glue guy, a player whose game would translate well to today’s league. Brian Propp was a minor star, in the middle of a career run where he was well over a point a game. Froese had been succeeded by Ron Hextall, who would win the Vezina Trophy and, in a losing effort, the Conn Smythe. Wayne Gretzky tended to get robbed for the Smythe, but not this year, son. It ought to have been Hextall.
But it was the D-corps that was the real infrastructure of the team’s resilience. People tend to forget—if they ever knew—what an awesome shut-down player Brad McCrimmon was for a long time. He was a plus/minus maven, too—with a +45 this season. Doug Crossman would make the Team Canada roster for the Canada Cup in the late summer—and deserved to—and then we have Mark Howe.
Do you know how good Mark Howe was? He was, quite easily, the third best defenseman of the 1980s behind Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey, and if you want to argue for him in front of the latter, that’s cool, because it’s not an impossible case to make. He was, let’s say, a world and half better than Coffey defensively, and just a peg below Bourque offensively. He was also the lone Hall of Famer on that Flyers team.
Over four playoff series, they played two games less than the maximum. The Rangers took them to six in the first round, the ridiculously pesky Islanders—who had come back from 3-1 on the Caps, with their Easter Epic Game 7 victory—required seven games (after doing that Isles thing of theirs and falling behind 3-1 again), then six more games were needed to clear away the Canadiens, with the Oilers waiting in the Cup Final.
This was the last dance for your mega-stacked Oilers, with a full complement of Gretzky, Mess, Kurri, Anderson, Coffey. That special Oil brew. They’d win the next year without Coffey, but he was the second-most important stylistic influence on that team after No. 99.
The Oil took the first two games, then had a 3-0 lead in Game 3. Show of hands: who would be packing it in at that point? If you don’t think that Oilers dynasty is the finest the league has produced, you think it’s top five, surely. But back came the Flyers, pulling out that contest 5-3. They dropped the next one, and returned to Edmonton for what everyone on the planet figured would be the mortal blow, at last.
So the Flyers, of course, win 4-3. Grapefruits, right? They took Game 6 in Philly, 3-2, and had a puncher’s chance in Edmonton in Game 7, before falling 3-1, with Grant Fuhr doing his Bernie Parent imitation in net. The run-and-gun Oilers of seasons before might not have beaten this team. True, they still ran and they still gunned, but they had learned to win with defense—had learned, you might say, to win with a bit of the Flyers’ brand of hockey.
Should we lament what the Flyers didn’t win? After all, what, realistically, would they have won had they been transposed to another pocket of time, and not had to face a team like the Oilers over a stretch of years? Probably one championship and a couple close calls. But if ever there was glory in not being quite good enough talent-wise, but champions of a sort resiliency-wise, those ’87 Flyers would have had a mother of a trophy to skate around with. Carve some names in that one.