The team that wouldn't die - the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers

 

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A visit to Edmonton by the Philadelphia Flyers always brings to mind happier days for both squads when they were the class of their respective conferences. Indeed, those memories would be a whole lot happier for Flyers' fans if not for the Oilers who twice defeated Philly in the finals and also beat out the Flyers for the first two Presidents' Trophies. Along the way the two squads had some epic battles, culminating in 1987 with one of the greatest Stanley Cup Finals of all time.

Without a doubt, Mike Keenan's Flyers were the best team not to win a Cup in the 1980s. Twice the squad finished first overall (pre-Presidents' Trophy) and made it to the Finals before being knocked off by a pair of budding dynasties -- the Islanders in 1980 and the Oilers in 1985. To the Flyers' credit, they hung around after that second defeat and were clearly the second best team in hockey for three years running.

1984-85 ................. W-L-T = Pts ..... GD
1. Philadelphia ... 53-20-7 = 113 ... +107
2. Edmonton ..... 49-20-11=109 ... +103
3. Washington .... 46-25-9 = 101 ..... +82
4. Winnipeg ........ 43-27-10 = 96 ..... +26

1985-86
1. Edmonton ..... 56-17-7 = 119 .... +116
2. Philadelphia .. 53-23-4 = 110 ..... +94
3. Washington ... 50-23-7 = 107 ..... +43
4. Quebec ......... 43-31-6 = 92 ........ +41

1986-87
1. Edmonton ..... 50-24-6 = 106 .... +88
2. Philadelphia ... 46-26-8 = 100 ... +65
3. Calgary ........... 46-31-3 = 95 ..... +29
4. Hartford .......... 43-30-7 = 93 ..... +17

The two squads were 1-2 in the standings and in goal differential all three seasons. The Flyers actually finished first in '85 after closing the season on a 16-1-0 run while the Oilers loitered down the stretch. Any questions as to which team was superior were answered in the SCF, in which the Oilers scored 1, 3, 4, 5, and 8 goals, winning the last four by increasingly convincing margins as they drove Pelle Lindbergh from the Philly nets and lit up his replacement Bob Froese.

Both teams had great regular seasons but were upset early in the bizarro 1986 playoffs. Questions hung over both that fall, as the Oilers coped with the fluke nature of their loss (the "Steve Smith goal") and subsequent, largely-unsubstantiated allegations in Sports Illustrated of rampant drug use on the team. The Flyers meanwhile were still trying to cope with the senseless and tragic death of their terrific young goalie Pelle Lindbergh in a car crash the previous season. That season, though, the Universe once again unfolded as it should and the two squads cruised through to a second Finals showdown in three years. Or should I say, Edmonton cruised, losing just 2 games in 3 series; the Flyers took the long and winding road through three long series, taking out the Rangers in 6, the Islanders in 7, and the Canadiens in 6. Nobody was too surprised to see them emerge from the East again, although the hope in these parts was that they would be worn out to the point that they would again succumb quickly to the high-flying Oilers. Didn't quite work out that way, as those Flyers were as resilient a squad as I've ever seen. They put up the toughest battle imaginable ...

The Oilers and Flyers were complementary teams in many ways. In '86-87 neither fit the (modern) standard model of teams that outshot their opponents on the way to outscoring them. Indeed, both teams were outshot during the regular season, but each rode exceptional percentages to success. For the Oilers of course, the extraordinary numbers occurred at the offensive end:

Team Shooting Percentage

1. Edmonton ...... 15.8%
2. Philadelphia ... 12.9%
21. Quebec ......... 11.2%

Note the remarkable fact that second-place Philly was considerably closer to the worst Sh% team than to the front-running Oilers. If one was to sort the NHL's 21 teams into two groups based on shooting efficiency, Edmonton would be in one "group" and the entire rest of the league in the other. The Oil finished 17th in the NHL in shots on goal, yet scored 54 more goals than any other team!

At the defensive end, though, it was the Flyers who carried the torch on the percentage front. The league was just beginning to tighten up defensively, the first cautious steps of what became the Dead Puck Era.

Team Save Percentage (ENG excluded)

1. Philadelphia ..... .902
2. Montreal ........... .893
10. Edmonton ..... .881
21. New Jersey .... .865


While not quite a mind-blowing 2.9%, the Flyers' margin over the Habs was very substantial indeed. Put the two numbers together and the Oilers and Flyers were by far the kings of the percentages, posting outstanding team PDO #'s of 103.9 and 103.1 respectively. Montreal was way back at 101.7 and the rest much further in arrears. So which would carry the day in the Finals, the irresistable force or the immovable object?

* * *

I had the exceptional good fortune to be a season ticket holder in Edmonton throughout the dynasty years, so was firmly ensconced in Section E Row 14 Seat 13 for four games in that memorable series, and was glued to my other favourite seat (the one in my living room) for the other three. The Oilers had earned home ice advantage thanks to their Presidents' Trophy triumph, so opened and eventually closed the series in the friendly confines. 

The Oilers iced what was surely their most talented team that spring. Grant Fuhr was a rock between the pipes, with Andy Moog waiting in the wings. The Big Five of Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, and Paul Coffey were still going strong near their fullest maturity, all 26 or younger. Esa Tikkanen was emerging as a force up front, as was Steve Smith on the blue. Then at the trade deadline Glen Sather added two more supremely talented players in Kent "Magic" Nilsson and Reijo "Rexi" Ruotsalainen. From a skill perspective it was like adding Ales Hemsky and Lubo Visnovsky to the roster. But on the '87 Oilers, the newcomers were reserve talent. That was one scary team.   

The Flyers brought a stalwart defensive team, led by the great -- as in "Hockey Hall of Fame great" in my opinion -- pairing of Mark Howe and Brad McCrimmon, the shutdown pair of matching octopi Brad Marsh and Kjell Samuelsson, and all-rounder Doug Crossman. Up front, the unit of Rick Tocchet, Pelle Eklund, and Brian Propp formed the classic trio of grinder, playmaker, and sniper, and played superb two-way hockey. Behind them were hard-checking lines centred by Peter Zezel, Dave Poulin, and Ron Sutter playing with an assortment of anonymous but effective wingers who might as well all have been worker bees in Keenan's hive. Unfortunately for the Flyers, their 58-goal man Tim Kerr was sidelined for the entire series with yet another injury. It was a much more mature group than the '85 team, yet still a young crew -- of the 20 players who dressed for 10 or more playoff games, just Mark Howe (31) was older than 28.

Backing them all up was the brash young netminder Ron Hextall, a 22-year-old rookie who had somehow already emerged as the masked face of that fine Philly team. Hextall filled the enormous void left by Lindbergh and had seized the #1 job right from the gate. He had beaten the mighty Oilers 2-1 in his NHL debut on opening night at the Spectrum, and had taken off from there. By season's end he led the league in GP, Wins, Saves, Save Percentage, and highlight-reel appearances, made the All-Rookie Team, and lost the Calder Trophy in a hotly contested vote to Luc Robitaille. He was an ultra-aggressive puckhandler in the manner of Marty Turco or Don "Smoky" McLeod which got him a lot of attention, and later in his career a couple of famous goals. It's harder to describe his style of puckstopping, which was not from any book; today some might call it a hybrid style, although I might coin the term "chaos goalie" to describe Ron Hextall. He sure seemed to spend an awful lot of time guessing right.

Hextall put his personal stamp on every period of every game; at live games he had a presence about him that was particularly strong for a goalie. He just made you watch him, even when nothing particular was happening, the way Mick Jagger makes you watch even as he's walking off stage for a break. In particular, Hextall's goal stick was always at the centre of attention, whether he was using it to make flamboyant and largely successful passes and zone clearances, to flail and hack away at the shins and calves of opponents who ventured too close to his crease, or simply to bash the posts in his unique way as he readied for the next drop of the puck. Clangclangclangclangclangclang, three times on each post, alternately with the shaft and the paddle. Seemed like he did it during every stoppage, as he announced his presence to fans and opponents alike. He was always a confident son-of-a-gun, but he was really riding the wave that spring, I can tell you.  

Keenan expressed his intentions for physical hockey by having enforcer Dave Brown take the series' opening faceoff. With Marty McSorley, Kevin McLelland, Mark Messier and Steve Smith in the line-up, the Oilers weren't about to be pushed around even by the Flyers and their bully-boy reputation. Taking no chances, Sather had dressed the raw but rambunctious Kelly Buchberger for his first NHL game, who answered the challenge when he dropped the flippers with Brown. And lived. While territory was being contested by rugged play on both sides in Game One, the Oilers' stars left their own mark where it mattered most, as Gretzky, Anderson, Coffey and Kurri all beat Hextall in a convincing 4-2 Oiler win.

Those opening-night Flyers were sucking wind from their long playoff run, but with 2 days off before Game Two, I knew that the Oilers were in for a tougher test. Sure enough both teams came out absolutely flying, and what followed was what I still consider the greatest live game I've ever seen. Finding this highlight package in my research for this piece has done nothing to alter that opinion -- if you've got 9 minutes it's well worth the watch, cheesy background music notwithstanding. What a ton of action there was in that game, featuring dozens of scoring chances, wonderful goaltending at both ends, plenty of animosity bordering on truculence, and splendid goals from Gretzky, Anderson, and finally Kurri in overtime to decide it. Worshippers of the Church of Kurri might particularly enjoy this package, which also offers a fine sample of the many goaltending "styles" of Ron Hextall.

The series hung on a knife edge at that point, and when the Oilers jumped out to a 3-0 lead in Game Three it seemed like they were ready to stick that knife in the Flyers. Messier (shorthanded), Coffey and Anderson did the damage, as the Big Five continued to do all of the scoring for the Oilers. Pushed to the brink, Philadelphia made a remarkable comeback, scoring 4 straight goals by various worker bees and finally an empty netter to seal a 5-3 win. It was the first comeback from a 3-goal deficit in the SCF since 1944, realized under the most dire of circumstances as the Flyers clung to the ledge. There was plenty of fight left in that dog.

Having let the series slip from their grasp, the Oilers showed up with a more determined, 60-minute effort in Game Four. Gretzky put in his most dominant performance of the series, scoring primary assists on the first three Oiler goals in a 4-1 win. This was the closest thing among the seven to a one-sided game, and the Spectrum crowd went very quiet down the stretch as the writing was on the wall that their home season was surely over. In the dying minutes, Hextall became enraged after Anderson whacked at a bobbled puck in his glove, and when no penalty was forthcoming, decided to take the law into his own hands. Which were of course carrying that big paddle. When Kent Nilsson innocently ventured too close to Hextall's crease, the netminder wound up and gave him a wicked two-hander across the back of the leg. The five-minute penalty effectively ended the game, but the message had been sent loud and clear.

Edmonton fans came to Game Five a little overconfident, and so did the Oilers themselves. The City hadn't helped matters by announcing a parade route in that day's paper, a huge motivator for the flagging Flyers, who were then subjected to the sight of champagne being delivered to the Oilers room before the darn game! The bravado seemed well-founded when the Oilers jumped out to 2-0 and 3-1 leads, but the Flyers again came clawing back, scoring two in the middle frame to tie it before Tocchet notched the winner early in the third to clinch an unlikely 4-3 comeback win. The big Flyer line had a dominant game, with Propp notching four points and Eklund and Tocchet three apiece. Once again the lesson had to be relearned: do not underestimate the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Oilers returned to the Spectrum angry and intent to close out the series in Game Six. Gretzky fed Lowe for yet another shorty to open the scoring, and the Oil scored again late in the first to take yet another 2-0 lead. Surely there would be no mistake this time. The Oilers continued to play well, but the Flyers somehow battled their way back into it, cutting the lead in half in the second before exploding for two more late in the third. A 2-1 Oiler lead with 6 minutes to go had been transformed into a 3-2 loss.

Yet another transcontinental flight brought the teams back to a considerably-less-cocky Edmonton for Game Seven. Luckily there was once again an extra day between games, because we all needed it to internalize what had happened. The Oilers had blown series leads of 2-0 and 3-1, and had done so by blowing in-game leads of 3-0, 3-1 and 2-0. I swear this series is when the myth of The Most Dangerous Lead In Hockey had its genesis. The Flyers simply refused to quit, and Hextall had consistently slammed the door during that portion of the game that the front-running Oilers usually ran up the score.

Game Seven was a different animal entirely. For one thing, Philly opened the scoring for the first time in the series, when Murray Craven converted a very early two-man advantage after Messier and Coffey had been fingered for penalties on the game's first two stoppages. An ominous start from one perspective, but it was fine by me that the game follow a different story line, at least for a while. For 6 nervous minutes the score remained 1-0 before Messier completed a brilliant three-way passing play at top speed with Anderson and Nilsson to stabilize the scoreboard at 1-1. The first period was extraordinarily wide open for a Game Seven; the Oilers outshot the Flyers 18-12 and the teams exchanged glorious chances. Marty McSorley of all people cleared one stray puck off the goal line, while Hextall and his metal friends weaved their magic at the other end.

The Oilers were skating like the wind, full bore for 60 minutes, and the exhausted Flyers eventually could no longer keep up. In the second the shots were a more commanding 13-6, and after several near misses the Oilers were finally rewarded with the go-ahead goal with 5 minutes left. A strong forecheck by Tikkanen caused the turnover in the corner right in front of me, Gretzky pounced on the loose puck and slipped it to Kurri in the left circle. A quick shrug of the great Finn's shoulders and the puck had beaten Hextall low to the far side. Happened so fast it took a split second to sink in that Oilers had the lead.

Of course the lead had caused us all sorts of trouble all series so we were still scared spitless of the Flyers. 26 games into their amazing playoff run (a record that has been tied just once since, by Calgary in '04), they seemed a team of destiny. Finally, however, the Oilers had figured out the way to keep the lead was to keep the puck. They played what may have been the best period in franchise history at the best possible time, skating the legs off the Flyers, pouring the pressure on deep in their territory, generating one dangerous chance after another. When the scoring lines took a breather, Craig MacTavish's checking line came on and continued to carry the play. Somehow Hextall kept the Oilers at bay, with no small help from his goalposts which rang three different times that period alone. (And I've got the video evidence to prove it, if you've got another 9 minutes.) The Flyers rarely ventured across the Oilers blue line, but every time they did we would lean back in our seats, inhaling and clenching and puckering and the whole nine yards. Believe me, they had earned our respect by this point. The Oilers continued to press as if they were the team that needed the next goal, and finally they got it from the great Glenn Anderson, playing perhaps the finest game of his career when it mattered most. Anderson burst over the Flyers' line and overpowered Hextall with a 35-foot bomb that found twine with just 2:24 to play. The Coliseum was almost turned into a convertible in that moment, the loudest I have ever heard the building in hundreds of hockey games and dozens of rock concerts. 3-1, and surely this was one two-goal lead we didn't have time to blow!

The Oilers played it out to perfection, outshooting the Flyers 12-2 in the third and in the process setting a new franchise record for fewest shots allowed in a period. What a time to do that! The overwhelmed Flyers had not so much as pulled Hextall down the stretch, as their now-acknowledged team leader was needed on the ice. When the siren sounded and the dream ended, he collapsed in his net in despair as the Oilers poured off the bench and into the doggy pile. Hextall was subsequently announced as the game's first star with his brilliant 40-save performance, and minutes later as the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy. The reaction of the crowd was mixed but mostly appreciative; we had what we were really after, the Stanley Cup. The rest were details.

One interesting detail was how the percentages played out in the SCF. On the surface they favoured the immovable object even though the irresistable force had ultimately carried the day. Hextall maintained his .903 Sv% against the mighty Oilers, who were thus reduced to 9.7% shooting efficiency, only about 60% of their established rate. If I had known that at the start of the series, I would have been disconsolate when thinking about the Oilers' chances. The big equalizer however was Fuhr, who had posted a top-notch Sv% of .917 to hold the Flyers at bay. Fuhr was the unsung guy in a series whose headlines were dominated by Gretzky, Kurri and Anderson. And Hextall.

Gretzky received the Cup from Commissioner Ziegler and in an extremely classy gesture immediately passed it over to young Steve Smith, the goat of the previous year's playoffs. The joy on Smith's face is a sight I shall never forget, and the remembrance of the roar from the crowd at the sight gives me the chills to this day.

* * *

The Flyers were something of a spent force after that fabulous run in the spring of '87, still a strong contender in the East but soon to implode as Mike Keenan approached his best before date. Hextall was a very good goalie but never again so great as he had been that rookie season. Despite a perennially strong team the Flyers have returned to the Stanley Cup Finals but once in the last 22 years, and were swept when they got there.

The Oilers were to win one more Cup the following season before Gretzky was traded that summer, and still another two years later as the supporting cast proved their greatness beyond a doubt. Both wins were against Boston, a very good but not great club, and both lacked the drama of that '87 classic against the Flyers. Then Kurri left immediately after the fifth Cup, followed a year later by Messier, Anderson and Fuhr, and the team quickly became a nonentity. Fortunately its long-suffering fans have memories of better days behind. For this fan one of the best of memories is of that classic seven-game SCF against the talented and gritty Flyers, whose resilience ultimately drew out the very best of the Oilers and produced some of the finest hockey I have ever seen.

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