As A team, their goal for this season is probably too lame to make it onto the dressing-room blackboard or into any pregame pep talk. The playoffs? Is that all? They are the Philadelphia Flyers, and this is the NHL. Making the playoffs is like making it onto Ed McMahon's mailing list or getting your own talk show. Everyone makes the playoffs. All you've got to do is wear your skates with the blade-side down and beat the Ottawa Senators a couple of times, and you're in.
At week's end Philadelphia had won seven straight games, including a 4-3 triumph over the defending Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on March 15. That victory pushed the Flyers past the Rangers and into first place in the Atlantic Division. Philly is now one of a handful of teams that appear capable of winning it all in this condensed NHL season, but the Flyers are not ready to shoot for the moon, or even a division title. They just want to make the playoffs. Maybe then they'll see about getting their names in the phone book.
"Our main focus is still getting in the playoffs," says left wing John LeClair, who came to the Flyers in a Feb. 9 trade with the Montreal Canadiens. "That might not seem like that much, but we've got the five-year thing hanging over our heads."
Lou Gehrig had the 2,130-game thing. Wilt Chamberlain had the 100-point thing. The Flyers have the five-year thing, a different kind of athletic achievement that defies logic. Philadelphia had some grand times in the 1970s and '80s, including two Stanley Cup championships and 16 straight winning seasons, but it saved its most implausible feat for the first half of this decade. The playoffs? The Flyers haven't made them since '89, the longest drought in the league. It would come as no surprise to see the Los Angeles Clippers or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Alan Dershowitz hit such a skid, but the estimable Broad Street Bullies are supposed to be different. They're supposed to be tougher, stronger, more resilient. They're not supposed to be trailing the San Jose Sharks (1-0) in postseason appearances in the '90s.
"I tell you what—I'm sick of going home at the end of the regular season," says Flyer captain Eric Lindros. "The last thing I want to do is watch other teams in the playoffs, but I'm almost forced to do it. All my friends are watching. Personally, I'd rather watch Love Connection."
Philadelphia's resurgence, unlike its funk of the last five years, is no great mystery. Last June the Flyers brought back the legendary Bob Clarke as their president and general manager, and Clarke brought back the attitude and the drive that made him the most popular player in franchise history. After the first three weeks of this season, Philadelphia was 3-6-1 and Clarke was tired of seeing his Bullies get bullied. "We were getting pushed around," he says.
Clarke made three trades in the next eight days, including the big one in which he acquired LeClair, defenseman Eric Desjardins and forward Gilbert Dionne for 100-point scorer Mark Recchi. The Flyers haven't been pushed around since. With the 6'2", 219-pound LeClair on one side and 6'1", 218-pound Mikael Renberg on the other, the 6'4", 229-pound Lindros has finally found linemates to match his style and size. The Flyers' new first line averages 222 pounds and 4.9 points a game, and already it has been tagged with the hideous nickname Legion of Doom.
"The last two years were hell," says Lindros, who's in his third NHL season. "I was used to winning all my life, and then I came here, and it was the worst feeling in the world. This year is totally different. Now when we take the ice, we expect to win."
Now when they take the ice, they expect to actually make the playoffs.
"Oh, yes, definitely," says Renberg. "We will be in the playoffs this year. I'm sure of that."