THOSE LOW-FLYING FLYERS

Stanley Cup finalist Philadelphia is struggling to keep from falling on its face
December 07, 1987

Just as the coroner was about to tie a tag to it, the Philadelphia Flyers wiggled a big toe. Showing that there may be life in them yet, the Flyers last week defeated Buffalo and Quebec, the first time they had put together back-to-back wins since mid-October. Before those victories, the defending Wales Conference champions had won just six of their first 22 games this season, the worst percentage (.341) in the NHL. Team Work Ethic—the All-Grit, No-Superstars, Bottom-Line Bunch that came within a game of winning the Stanley Cup last May—spent much of November snuggled up to the bottom line of the Patrick Division, dead last.

Philadelphians don't have enough fingers to tick off all the reasons for their team's faltering start. Some guys didn't heal on time. Some guys misbehaved and had to serve suspensions. Some guys played all summer and reported for duty burned out. The coach was too mean. The general manager was too timid—wouldn't swing the Big Deal that would make everything fine again.

"If there's one reason, there are 15," said Flyers coach Mike Keenan after Wednesday's 5-2 win over Buffalo. "We didn't fall through a trapdoor into this thing, and we're not going to get shot out of a cannon and just suddenly escape it. You take steps to get into a slump, you take steps to get out of one."

The Buffalo game was Step 1. Three nights later the Flyers took Step 2, as six different players scored in a 6-3 win at Quebec. "The ship is righting itself," said Keenan. Well, let's just say it wasn't listing quite so badly. The win at Le Colisèe earned Philadelphia its first points on the road in seven games, dating back to Oct. 26 against the Rangers. That was the night the Flyers tied New York 2-2, and it is the date to which many of the Flyers' problems are pegged. Late in the third period of that game, Philadelphia right wing and cleanup hitter Dave Brown made a blindside crosscheck on Ranger forward Tomas Sandstrom's jaw. It was all Sandstrom's fault, Brown claimed, because Sandstrom had first speared Flyers defenseman Mark Howe in the protective cup.

Not even the lenient NHL could buy the idea that the punishment meted out by Brown fit the alleged crime, and the league suspended him for 15 games. He will be out until Dec. 6. In the jerk of a knee, G.M. Bobby Clarke acquired aging (35-year-old) mercenary Nick Fotiu to hit in Brown's place. But Fotiu no longer makes opponents quake. "We definitely miss David," says Clarke, who frequently laces up his skates at practice and works with Brown to help refine the winger's skills.

Without Brown's intimidating presence, Philly is blowing more leads than Inspector Clouseau. In the past three seasons under Keenan, the Flyers had kissed away only five third-period leads in 290 games. But with their soufflèlike collapse against the Islanders on Nov. 21, in which the Isles came back from a 4-1 third-period deficit to win 6-4, the Flyers had performed their third final-period swoon of this season.

Through it all, Clarke and Keenan have given the appearance of remaining unruffled and very much in control. Clarke has made no major trades during the drought, although he did put in a strong bid for All-Star Oiler holdout Paul Coffey, coming in a close second to Pittsburgh in the bidding for the offensive defenseman. "We're not going to throw guys in the river for going through a dry spell," says Clarke. "These guys didn't forget how to play hockey over the summer."

On the contrary, many of the Flyers—goalie Ron Hextall, forwards Rick Tocchet and Brian Propp, and defenseman Doug Crossman—were players for Keenan on Team Canada in the Canada Cup series. But while Keenan was working 14-hour days devising the tactics that would help Team Canada defeat the Soviet Union two games to one for the Cup championship, other NHL coaches were getting a six-week head start on him. The Flyers' training camp was chaotic, what with the staggered arrivals of the coach and so many star players. "It was so disrupted, there's no question that it hurt us," says Clarke.

Keenan is a warm fellow away from the ice—he was lead vocalist and a keyboardist with Nick and the Nice Guys, a band he joined with some college pals—but he did not become a hockey coach to make friends. And if anyone ever needed proof of that, the Flyers' slump provided it. Keenan has benched two of the Flyers who were standouts for him on Team Canada—Tocchet and Crossman—and has also sat down centers Ron Sutter—a Sutter, benched?—and Peter Zezel and winger Ilkka Sinisalo.

It was during a lethargic Flyers loss in St. Louis on Nov. 10 that Keenan pulled Tocchet out of the game at the start of the second period. Afterward Tocchet was widely quoted as saying, "I'm not going to go out and just fight." The Flyers, of course, have long been accused of starting fights when things aren't going well for them. For their part, the Philadelphia coaches insisted that Tocchet had not been told to fight but simply to play more hard-nosed hockey.

Tocchet and Keenan patched up their differences on the flight home, but already it was too late to keep the issue of Keenan's popularity among the Flyers from becoming a public one. Clarke wasted no time checking in with a vote of confidence for his Keenan. "I'm not firing the coach," he told Al Morganti of The Philadelphia Inquirer. "Some of the players are trying to put the blame on the coach, and that's not right. They are professionals. Where does it say they have to like the coach?"

The players admit that Keenan seems to be making an effort to modulate the outbursts that have become his trademark. "The frequency and timing of the tirades has changed," says Flyers captain Dave Poulin.

"There has been some compromise," says Keenan. "I can make adjustments in my style. But I can't compromise the ingredients that go into winning. Those are absolutes." In other words, if you don't like the shouting, buy earplugs.

Even if everything else were perfect in Philadelphia, the Flyers would still be in trouble. Hextall may have been last season's playoff MVP and Vezina Trophy winner, but he is this year's slumping sophomore. Since that same fateful Ranger game on Oct. 26, when he returned from an eight-game suspension for slashing Edmonton's Kent Nilsson in the Stanley Cup finals, Hextall has gone 4-8-2.

"Ron has certain expectation levels for himself, and when he can't meet them, he gets frustrated," says Keenan. It's clear that the 23-year-old Hextall has been pressing. At times even his superb stickhandling and puck-clearing talents have failed him. But even with Hextall's goals-against average hovering near 4.00, everyone figures he will revert to form, a fact the Flyers underlined two weeks ago by signing him to a reported eight-year contract worth about $300,000 annually.

Hextall's problems are not just mechanical and mental. He's too loyal to say anything, but there is the matter of the guys who played so well in front of him a year ago. This season Crossman, normally a solid defender, has looked like someone who played all summer; Howe is off to a lousy start; and Brad (the Beast) McCrimmon is playing in Calgary, not Philadelphia.

Howe's season has typified the team's. A slap shot off the stick of Boston defenseman Ray Bourque cracked a rib and one vertebra in the preseason. His scoring has suffered and, he admits, he has been "making bad judgments." Against Buffalo last week, Howe couldn't even successfully commit a penalty. With only 17 seconds left in the second period, Mike Foligno hurdled Howe—"I had every intention of tripping him," Howe said—bore down on Hextall and tied the game at 2-2.

"Everyone goes through dry times in this game, and I don't think I've ever been drier," said Howe. "It's like somebody's trying to test your character." Also, as he has said, Howe misses the Beast.

All the Flyers do. McCrimmon is one of the NHL's best pure defensemen, the type of stay-at-home, keep-the-other-guy-away-from-the-goal, get-the-puck-out-of-your-zone-fast kind of player that every team had in quantity before Bobby Orr came along and introduced offense to defense. But McCrimmon wanted more money than Clarke was willing to give him, and he was shipped to Calgary for first- and third-round draft picks. What the Flyers still must replace is McCrimmon's surliness and expertise.

Just as Philadelphia's defense has become a bad joke, so too has the team's power play without Tim Kerr. The big right wing scored 58 goals last season but hasn't played since early April. In June he underwent the first of five shoulder operations. "A screw that was used to fuse a bone to the joint fell out," says Dr. John Gregg. "So we had to replace the screw, and then he got an infection around the area of the screw." Gregg performed the most recent operation (to remove a pin) on Nov. 6 and expects Kerr to be back on the ice come March.

It is doubly cruel that the Flyers must survive without Kerr this particular year because NHL officials have adopted a more literal interpretation of the rule book. The 225-pound Kerr, whose habit was to simply drop anchor on the doorstep of the opponent's goalie and punch in rebounds, would undoubtedly have been a beneficiary of the increased number of restraining fouls—holding, interference—that are being called.

Meanwhile, as teams like Chicago and Calgary grow fat on special teams goals, the Flyers' power play recently went 0-48. And so it was left for second-year man Craig Berube—best known for his tag-team exploits with Brown—to pot the game-winner against Buffalo last week, his first NHL point.

"See," said Keenan, smiling after that game. "If we were still in a tailspin, we would have found a way to lose."

In Quebec, Keenan saw good things all around:

•Pelle Eklund scored on a garbage goal, up close and in heavy traffic—unheard of for the forward who had seemed all but allergic to contact. Eklund, whose five goals in two games ravaged the Canadiens in the Wales Conference semifinals last season, had scored only one goal in 20 games this season. "It was just a different Pelle Eklund that showed up in camp," said a baffled Clarke.

•Sinisalo, another huge disappointment, scored on a between-the-legs circus shot—just the kind of play that can snap a man out of a slump.

•And it was none other than the points-starved Howe who put the game out of reach with a wrist shot while the Flyers were shorthanded.

Meanwhile, by losing to the Islanders on the same night, the Rangers bumped Philadelphia out of the Patrick Division cellar. Leaving Le Colisèe, the Flyers walked into the frigid Quebec night and onto the team bus. They had no games scheduled for the next five days but were not bound for home. Instead the team was off to Lake Placid, N.Y., for a four-day hockey retreat. "Kind of a mini-camp," said Clarke.

"This will be a circling of the wagons," said assistant coach E.J. McGuire, "allowing the team to eliminate distractions—social invitations, wives, children—and lick this thing once and for all." Training camp a bust? Well, no problem. The Flyers will do it over until they get it right. Nick and the Nice Guys were not scheduled to appear.

PHOTOANTHONY NESTECrossman and Sutter (far left) have returned from the bench. Eklund (9) had a wakeup call. PHOTOPAUL BERESWILL[See caption above.] PHOTOPAUL BERESWILLZezel (25) took a header at home, and Scott Mellanby took off his gloves in the win at Quebec. PHOTOANTHONY NESTE[See caption above.] PHOTOPAUL BERESWILLPhilly fans are still behind coach Keenan, but you wouldn't call it wholehearted support. PHOTOANTHONY NESTEHextall, rock-steady as a rookie goaltender, has fallen victim to a sophomore slump. PHOTOPAUL BERESWILLKerr's only workouts this season have come at the hands of physical therapist Pat Croce. PHOTOPAUL BERESWILLClarke has been working to brush up Brown's skills during his suspension.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)