The best team in hockey has an apparently lame-duck coach, a
power play that hasn't scored two goals in a game since the
Atlanta Braves looked like a World Series lock, a new star
defenseman who has already been accidentally injured twice by
his teammates, and a captain who has had his head gashed open by
his own goalie. The best team in hockey also hasn't lost since
November. "We're on autopilot right now," center Eric Lindros
says of the surging Philadelphia Flyers, who through Sunday were
25-12-4 and in first place in the Atlantic Division. Thank
goodness. Though they were riding a 16-game unbeaten streak at
week's end, the Flyers have seemed at times to have Wrong Way
Corrigan as their pilot.
Philadelphia extended its streak--and showed its mettle--in a
4-4 tie in Denver last Saturday night against the Colorado
Avalanche, the defending Stanley Cup champion. The Flyers and
the Avalanche produced an emotional if often inelegant match, a
measuring stick of a game that both teams seemed intent upon
grabbing and whacking the other over the head with. If so many
important players, including Philadelphia defenseman Paul Coffey
and Colorado center Peter Forsberg, hadn't been out with
injuries, the game might have been a dress rehearsal for the
But it did provide two things to file away for future reference:
the third period and overtime. In the final 25 minutes of a road
trip that included five games in eight days, that covered 4,363
miles and was winding down in a hostile rink at 5,280 feet
against a well-rested, elite team, the Flyers roared back with
two goals, outshot Colorado 18-7 and played keepaway with the
puck. Philly was huge. The Flyers were huge in the first two
periods too, of course, because at an average of 6'2" and 210
pounds, they are the biggest team in the NHL, but in the third
period, when they could have been excused for checking out,
their girth and grit overwhelmed Colorado.
"The Doom, man, they're so big and strong," Avalanche right wing
Mike Keane said afterward of Philadelphia's Legion of Doom line,
made up of Lindros and wings John LeClair and Mikael Renberg.
Lindros, LeClair and Renberg average 6'3" and 228 pounds, which
makes them an inch taller and only nine pounds lighter per man
than the Denver Broncos' linebackers. Unlike those Broncos,
however, the Doom line plays for a team that seems unlikely to
take the first off-ramp out of the playoffs. "The Flyers are the
team to beat," says Keane.
Philadelphia has undergone a startling transformation since Nov.
27. At that time the Flyers were a .500 team--stone-handed
around the net, trailing the Florida Panthers by 10 points--and
their general manager, Bobby Clarke, had to deny that he was
making discreet calls to Pat Burns, a highly regarded coach who
was between jobs. Now Philadelphia is cutting a swath through
hockey, outscoring opponents 28-11 in the third period during
its six-week surge and passing Florida like a semi on I-95. Why?
For starters, the monster truck, Lindros, is back. He missed the
first 23 games of the season with a groin injury sustained
during the World Cup, stumbled around in two Philly losses after
returning on Nov. 26 and then took off on a point-scoring
streak, which reached 16 games at the end of last week. During
that span, which paralleled the Flyers' winning streak, he had
12 goals and 14 assists. When asked last week to assess his
play, Lindros said, "Up and down." In the same conversation he
later upgraded it to "pretty good," although he wouldn't budge
from that. He was showing either humility, calculated cool
or--the least likely but scariest possibility--a failure to
recognize that those 16 games were among the best of his career.
His 1996-97 points-per-game average of 1.44 through Sunday
ranked behind his career average of 1.46, but Flyers coach Terry
Murray says Lindros's attention to detail has never been more
acute. "Eric's playing the game the right way," Murray says.
"He's not swinging away [in the defensive zone], looking for a
breakaway pass. He's playing fundamental hockey."
If Lindros has not been boyishly enthusiastic about
Philadelphia's cautious approach on the ice, at least he has
been dutiful. He certainly isn't going to pick a fight with the
NHL's longest unbeaten streak this season, having already lost a
battle to Philadelphia goalie Ron Hextall's skate. Lindros has a
long scar on his scalp, a souvenir from Dec. 8, when Hextall
swung his leg and hit him with a skate blade during a stretching
session on the ice. "That's O.K.," Lindros said afterward. "My
modeling career has been over for many, many years."
Of course, it is better to receive than to give. On New Year's
Eve in Vancouver, as the 6'4", 236-pound Lindros was circling
back into the defensive zone and Coffey was starting
up-ice--boom! Coffey already had missed one game because of a
collision with 6'5", 234-pound teammate Dan Kordic in the
pregame warmup on Dec. 21, but this time he was really down for
Tears welled in Lindros's eyes as he leaned over the unconscious
Coffey, his thoughts drifting to his brother, Brett, who was
forced to retire from the New York Islanders last May after
suffering five concussions in two seasons. "I don't think Brett
ever had one that bad," Lindros says. "I was in shock. The rest
of the game was a total write-off." Coffey was unconscious for
five minutes, and his first thought upon coming to was that he
still played for the Detroit Red Wings.
That was two teams ago. Coffey had a brief, bitter sojourn with
the Hartford Whalers this season before Clarke rescued him on
Dec. 15, acquiring him in a trade for defenseman Kevin Haller
and Philly's 1997 first- and seventh-round draft choices. The
cost was certainly reasonable: The Flyers didn't have to deal a
core player to get the most prolific scoring defenseman in
The swap would be considered a steal if Coffey, who is expected
back this week, hadn't already been stolen more often than the
Maltese falcon. It's a wonder he hasn't gotten terminal writer's
cramp from all the change-of-address cards he has had to fill
out in his 17-year NHL career. No Hall of Famer has played for
more than five teams; Philly is Coffey's sixth. At 35 he remains
a defensive risk but a supreme offensive force, capable of
adding dash to a miserable power play that through Sunday ranked
21st in the league. He also provides Philadelphia with a strong
veteran voice. While Coffey hasn't played especially well in the
last two playoffs, Stanley Cups have had a way of following him
around. He had a chief supporting role with the Edmonton Oilers
when Wayne Gretzky won his first Cup, in 1984, and he was a
power-play force for the Pittsburgh Penguins when Mario Lemieux
won his first Cup seven years later. Coffey should be good
company for Lindros, who is in his fifth year and welcomes the
"Coffey's got this air of confidence that's amazing," Lindros
says. "He'll have the worst shift in the world and come back to
the bench, and you'll try to talk about it and he'll say, 'It's
over. Don't worry about it. I won't even discuss it.' Then on
the next shift he's his old self again. Coffey gives us a lot."
The whole team, in fact, seems more grounded. "We're more mature
on the ice," Lindros says. "Examples? We're playing St. Louis.
The Blues are struggling, they've changed their coach, and we
know they're going to come out flying. It's the second-to-last
game before Christmas. In past years we haven't come to the rink
with much enthusiasm in those situations. Well, we shut out St.
Louis. The next game in Chicago, I thought there was a hook [on
a Philadelphia defenseman that went unpenalized], and the
Blackhawks score on a two-on-one, and we're down two goals
early. But we came back to tie the game."
Lindros neglects to say that he spearheaded that comeback,
scoring both goals and exhorting his teammates on the bench.
Certainly he has better listeners than he has had in years
past--improving role players like second-line forward Trent
Klatt, third-line winger Shjon Podein, and rookie defenseman
Janne Niinimaa of Finland, who sees the ice exceptionally well.
LeClair, who has had 12 goals and 11 assists during the 16-game
streak, is displaying a newfound confidence in the open ice,
occasionally lugging the puck between zones instead of handling
it like burning toast and heading for the net. In the second
season of a five-year contract that pays him $9 million, LeClair
is the best value in hockey. Clarke has signed four star
players--LeClair, Renberg, forward Rod Brind'Amour and
defenseman Eric Desjardins--to multiyear contracts for less than
$2 million annually, some neat bookkeeping.
About the only asset Clarke hasn't wrapped up is Murray, who has
instilled defense and discipline in a team that hadn't made the
playoffs in five seasons when he took over in 1994. But he
hasn't been able to ignite an emotional spark during the
postseason, a failing that was particularly evident last spring
when Philadelphia went flat at the end of its quarterfinal
series against Florida. Murray is finishing the final year of a
three-year deal, with no extension in sight. Clarke and Murray
often work out together, and while the subject of Murray's
contract came up during some of their summer jogs, Clarke hasn't
raised it during the season. When rumors of Murray's imminent
firing surfaced two months ago, Clarke assured Murray that they
were nonsense. Murray said fine. But as he studied tape of the
Avalanche in his hotel suite last Friday, he conceded that he
wished "something would be taken care of."
"Murray's given us a good game plan," LeClair says. "When we
started slowly, it wasn't because of anything he wasn't doing.
So do they really have faith in him? I do. But I don't look that
deep. I take things at face value."
The Flyers don't want to dig too deep. Look at them and you see
the best team in hockey midway through the season, a team with a
premier line and a defense that has allowed 30 or more shots in
a game just four times, a team that has rallied to win or tie
eight games in the third period. Look again and you see a power
play at 13.4%, a coach who is waiting for the phone to ring, and
a goalie, Hextall, whose overaggressiveness makes him good but
has also been his downfall. But everything--the contracts, the
power play--will sort itself out. Right now it is enough to say
that when their will is tested, the Flyers play with the resolve
that marked those superb Philadelphia teams of the 1970s and
'80s. They are first because they own the third.