What's the National Hockey League trying to do, revive interest in the game? After staging boring mismatches for more than two months, the NHL unaccountably returned to those thrilling days of yesteryear last week and gave its suffering faithful two prime match-ups—Philadelphia at Boston and Boston at Philadelphia—all within the space of 42 hours. At last, it was the mace and chain, the black and blue—and no Colorado Rockies to put you to sleep in between.
For Philadelphia it was a series of crisis proportions. Skating into the Boston Garden, where they had not won a regular-season game in more than nine years, the Flyers were mired in third place in the Patrick Division, five points behind the first-place New York Islanders, two behind Atlanta. "A lot of people have buried us for the season," said Bobby Clarke. Indeed, the Flyers were tying the games they had always won and losing the games they had always tied over the last three years, a period during which they won two Stanley Cups and reached the finals the other time.
Philadelphia had won only one of its 11 games away from the friendly Spectrum, eight times blowing victories or ties in the final period. This unaccustomed play had prompted Islander Goaltender Chico Resch to wonder "if the old Flyers' enthusiasm and bravado is still there." One thing was certain: the Dave Schultz-less Flyers were hardly bashing skulls like the Broad Street Bullies of recent years. They were spending almost seven fewer minutes per game in the penalty box than they had a year ago, and almost 10 fewer than in their vintage campaigns. While they were not quite ready to claim any Lady Byng awards, the Flyers were so passive on the ice that some angry fans hung a banner reading: THE ONLY CHECKS YOU SEE AROUND HERE ARE ON PAYDAY.
"The fact that we don't fight as much doesn't mean that the character of the team has changed," says Wing Gary Dornhoefer. "The character has not changed. The way we work, we're the same Flyers."
December 20, 1976
Still, there were problems. "There's no question we weren't playing well for a while," says Coach Fred Shero, "but it wasn't because of a lack of effort or enthusiasm. There were a lot of factors strung together that had us struggling." For one, Defenseman Joe Watson calls Philadelphia's training camp "the worst we've had in our 10 years." Four players reported late from the Canada Cup series, and two of them—Clarke and Defenseman Jimmy Watson—were injured and missed most of the camp. Schultz was traded to Los Angeles, and Shero had to bring in a new muscleman—Paul (Bam Bam) Holmgren. In an effort to add still more thump, Shero recently picked up 6'4", 215-pound Harvey (Too Tall) Bennett from Washington.
When the season began, Clarke gamely tried to play with a sore heel, but performed so erratically that his line, with Bill Barber and Reggie Leach on the wings, was ineffective. Leach scored 61 goals last season, and Barber 50, but they had only seven and eight, respectively, the first two months. "I don't have the slightest idea what's going on," said Leach, who had become almost a total non-contributor because of his reluctance to do even minimal checking.
In the early games, too, Goaltender Bernie Parent rarely played like the Parent who had led the Flyers to their two Stanley Cups while establishing himself as the best in his business. Parent missed all but 11 games of the 1975-76 season after having an operation to correct a disc problem in his neck, and for a few weeks there was concern that Parent might never approach the performance level he had reached in Cup years.
"I think I will be my old self before long," Parent says. "After Montreal's Ken Dryden sat out a full year a few seasons back, he said it took him almost an entire season to get his form back. It does take that long. I wasn't right when this season started. My timing wasn't there. I was guessing on shots. I had a physical problem, too: I had to wear a special pad inside my right boot to protect a broken bone. And I always seemed to get very tired. It would take me a day and a half to recover from a game, and even in the games I was sluggish.
"The team had to suffer along with me. I think I cost us a couple of games in the beginning. I didn't make the big save, or I let in a few easy goals, and the guys had to be cautious." Parent has a career goals-against average of 2.43, but he gave up 19 goals in Philadelphia's first five games. Worse still, he was flopping to the ice, leaving rebounds and tripping all over himself as he moved about in the crease.
However, Parent was optimistic before Thursday night's game in Boston. Despite the salt-and-pepper beard and mustache he wears to go with his graying hair, he is still something of a youngster—at least by goaltender standards—at 31. "I've worked hard, and now I think I'm pretty close to being all the way back," he says. Parent worked out twice a day in the early season and even convinced Shero to let him practice in full equipment on game days. With Wayne Stephenson, who replaced Parent when he was injured a year ago, opting for retirement after a contract squabble, Bernie had to play in 25 of Philadelphia's 26 games before the Boston series.
"I'm reaching the point where I'll need some rest pretty soon," Parent says. He may get it. Stephenson ended his retirement last week.
Boston had been having problems, too, winning only one of its previous five games, with the once-tight Bruin defense yielding 21 goals during that stretch. Boston had even lost a game at home for the first time in almost a year. Moreover, Brad Park, the Bruins' best defenseman, would have to watch both games from the stands because of a bad back. And the streaking Buffalo Sabres, who had ended the Bruins' 31-game unbeaten string on home ice with a 6-2 victory, were rapidly wiping out Boston's lead in the Adams Division race, which once had been as high as 10 points.
Nevertheless, the Bruins took an early 1-0 lead in the Garden when Wayne Cashman rerouted a long shot past the screened Parent. Capitalizing on Park's absence, Philadelphia exploited Boston's defensive weaknesses for two goals, and Parent preserved the Flyers' lead to the end. Late in the game it seemed almost certain that the Bruins would pull out a tie, but Parent twice robbed rookie Stan Jonathan at close range. Then Clarke scored, or was given credit for scoring, a very peculiar goal—or non-goal. With Boston Goaltender Gilles Gilbert on the bench in favor of a sixth attacker, Clarke broke in alone on the unattended Boston goal. Just as Clarke fired the puck, Bobby Schmautz of the Bruins illegally threw his stick at it—and Clarke's shot flew wide. Referee Bruce Hood properly awarded Clarke the goal for a 3-1 Flyer victory.
What impressed Shero more than the score was the fact that the Flyers had limited the Bruins to just 18 shots. The Flyers took only 16 shots themselves but, as Shero said, "It's not how many shots you take that counts, it's how many good shots you take. This was the first good game we've played on the road all year. When we play our game, we don't lose too often." What did not impress Shero, though, was the play of Leach, who spent most of the game on the bench, watching Holmgren and Bennett take regular turns. "He'll play when he starts to check," Shero said.
Shero would not even let Leach dress for Saturday afternoon's rematch at the Spectrum. Boston again took an early lead, moving on top 3-1. The Bruins tried to put the Flyers away, but the nimble Parent stopped three breakaways and also survived one power-play barrage of six shots. "That stretch was the kind of lift Bernie always used to give us," said Barber. Inspired by Parent's work, the Flyers dominated the Bruins in the third period, outshooting them 16 to 2 and scoring two goals in the last three minutes to turn a 3-2 defeat into a 4-3 victory. Dornhoefer scored the tying goal, then stole the puck from Defenseman Dallas Smith and set up Barber for the winning goal, his second score of the game and 10th of the season. "Winning like this," said Joe Watson, "proves that we've got things rolling again."
The sweep completed, Clarke wiped the blood from a cut under his nose. He wore a satisfied grin. "Those people who buried us," he said, "I guess now they realize how tough it'll be to keep us in the coffin."