The Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers collided in an 1-95 series last week, and when it was over they called a tow truck for the Caps. The second-place Flyers shoved—also hooked, held, tripped, slashed, cross-checked and high-sticked—their way into a first-place tie with the Caps in the Patrick Division by winning Thursday's 9-6 shootout in Philadelphia and Friday's 4-2 meat grinder in Landover, Md. After Sunday night's 11-4 thrashing of Pittsburgh, following the Caps' 3-2 loss to Boston, the Flyers were two points up.
"The significance of the series is that it was a dress rehearsal for the playoffs," said Philadelphia's rookie coach, Mike Keenan, whose young team brought to mind a scaled-down version of the old Broad Street Bullies and clearly established itself as having the talent, poise and toughness to be a force in Stanley Cup play.
Force was a key word in both games. Ten seconds after referee Dave Newell dropped the puck in Philly, the Caps—and Newell—made the series' first mistakes. As the Flyers dumped the puck behind the Washington net, there was Capital goalie Pat Riggin viciously swinging the blade of his stick into Flyer center Peter Zezel's left cheek. "A cheap shot," said Zezel. "He might've taken my eye out." But instead of handing down a seemingly deserved five-minute major, Newell let Riggin off with two minutes for high-sticking. This was a fairly clear message, one not lost on the Flyers, that Newell would not be calling a tight game. The Flyers exploited that fact.
It took only 24 seconds of the ensuing power play for the Flyers to burn the woeful Capital penalty killing (the Caps have the NHL's second-best defensive record but the second-worst penalty-killing percentage). Tim Kerr's shot from the left circle went high on the short side past a handcuffed Riggin.
"How do you stop Kerr?" Washington coach Bryan Murray was asked before the game.
"We don't," said Murray, pointing out that the big (6'3", 225 pounds) Philly forward had nine goals in five previous games against the Caps, including four in the teams' previous meeting. On Thursday, Kerr, the NHL's fourth-leading goal scorer, got three more. "I'm convinced the only way to stop Kerr is to clutch and grab him and hold his stick," said Murray. But Washington had been unable or unwilling to do that, and Kerr spent most of the evening camped in front of the Capitals' goal. "You can't outphysical him," said the Washington defenseman Rod Langway.
After falling behind 2-0 in the first 49 seconds—Dave Poulin, who would also end up with a hat trick, scored goal No. 2—the Caps surged to a 4-2 second-period lead on two power-play goals by defenseman Scott Stevens, one of the few Caps willing to get physical with the Flyers, and scores by Dave Christian and Bobby Carpenter. But all the while Philly was getting the better of the body work. The Flyers may not be gooning it up to the extent they did in the '70s, but they came into the game with 1,200 penalty minutes to Washington's 831 and showed throughout the series that they're learning fast.
Philadelphia forwards Lindsay Carson and Rich Sutter took turns chopping at Langway, and the game wasn't four minutes old when Flyer forward Rick Tocchet nearly put Capital forward Bob Gould's head through the boards with a brutal check, for which he got two minutes for boarding instead of a more appropriate five-minute major. All game long the Flyers made good on defenseman Brad Marsh's assertion, "We can't let them come in here and play comfortable hockey."
The turning point in the game and probably in the series—possibly even in the season—came midway through the second period, when Philadelphia got Langway off the ice. In the old days, the Broad Street Bullies would have a couple of thugs beat on the opposition's best players—Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Rod Gilbert, Gilbert Perreault—and provoke them into fights and other retaliatory tactics. Three thugs for one Orr, say, was an advantageous swap for the Bullies. Now it was Langway whom Philly wanted to neutralize.
"They kept yelling on the bench, 'Get Langway. Get Langway,' " said Murray the next day. And they did get him. Langway suffered one indignity after another, and when Carson tried to spear him, he finally retaliated. He won the fight (with three solid rights to the head and a takedown), but it pretty much cost Washington the game. Carson and Langway drew five minutes apiece for fighting, but Carson was no real loss to Philly. On the other hand, while the NHL's two-time Norris Trophy winner languished in the penalty box, Washington gave up two goals to Poulin.
"Their stars played like stars," said Murray after the game, citing the play of Kerr, Poulin and Ilkka Sinisalo (two goals, one assist) in the Flyer win. By disconcerting contrast, the Caps' top scorer, Mike Gartner, was held pointless, thanks to the close work of Marsh, a plodding skater with little mobility. Marsh's un-penalized holding, hooking and assorted other minor atrocities—another throwback to those days of gore—prompted Murray to say, more in admiration than in anger, "Marsh is the greatest cheater in the game." Goalie Riggin, second in the NHL in wins, was shaky and, with the score 6-4 in the third period, was removed, for the first time in 48 starts, in favor of Al Jensen. Even Langway blew one in the third period when, with Washington trailing 7-6, he turned the puck over with a blind pass up the boards that led to a Kerr goal.
Though Murray praised the Flyers, his voice was heavy with sarcasm when he spoke of his own team's effort, particularly against Kerr. "We're an awfully nice bunch of guys," he said. "I guess we feel Tim Kerr deserves to score a lot of goals."
Told of his coach's remarks, Carpenter said, "You know where nice guys finish. We should be able to play like that. If they're going to run at you, you've got to get that stick up. Make them eat part of it."
Said a seething Stevens, "Everyone on that team gives you an extra shot. We're too nice. I'll chop. It's part of hockey."
Indeed, the Capitals' loss changed not only the way they had to look at themselves but also the way they had to regard Game 2. Whereas before the series Langway had said, "If we sweep, they're gone," by Thursday night that tune had changed to Stevens's postgame observation that Friday's game was "not to put away first place anymore. It's just to get back to playing the way we can."
But again, the Flyers jumped to a 2-0 lead, on goals by Sinisalo and Derrick Smith, before Gartner was finally heard from with a goal at 18:32. As the first period ended, Washington finally stood up to the Flyers but failed to benefit from it. At the buzzer Stevens went after Zezel behind the Caps' net. "He said, 'Drop your gloves,' " said Zezel. "Then he grabbed my face and I grabbed his face and we pushed and shoved until everybody came."
And he did mean everrrybody. The Flyers lost Glen Cochrane, Ed Hospodar and Brad McCrimmon to ejections and were left with only four defensemen to finish the game. But before the Caps, who lost forwards Alan Haworth and Lou Franceschetti, could overwork the now undermanned Flyer defense, Murray Craven made it 3-1 Flyers early in the second period. Thereafter, even the potentially devastating loss of Kerr, who suffered a strain of the ligaments in his right knee when he crashed into the boards, could not stop Philadelphia. Diligent Flyer back-checking and a tough defense anchored by Marsh's inspired—if quasi-legal—play closed the door on Washington, except for Stevens's third-period score.
"They came out bumping," said a smiling Marsh in the Flyer dressing room after the game, "but not many teams can bump, bump, bump all night." No, but the Flyers can. And in sweeping the Caps, Philadelphia ran its season record against them to a dominating 5-1-1. Indeed, if Washington can't find a way to match or offset Philadelphia's superior hitting game, should the teams meet, as is likely, in the divisional finals, then Bump, Bump, Bump, the new lullaby of Broad Street, may also be the requiem for the nice guys.