After stumbling through a little more than half a season in lockout-shortened 1995, the NHL finds itself on the brink of two seasons in 1995-96.
There is the shiny new year that starts this week with an 82-game regular season and the best of intentions. In an effort to get rid of the clutch-o-thons that were smothering the game, the league is planning to eliminate obstruction and interference by strictly enforcing the rules, thereby returning the game to the hands of its most skilled players. If the NHL applies the new standards throughout the season, the defending champion New Jersey Devils and the Detroit Red Wings could very well play for the championship again.
But the NHL has tried to tighten enforcement before, in 1992-93, only to lose its nerve in the face of nonstop power plays. This time the NHL says it means it. The bet here is that the crackdown will continue until the end of the regular season. But the Stanley Cup playoffs, the league's second season, have always been subject to a separate standard, one that turns a blind eye to obstruction, one that puts a premium on toughness, one that favors the strong as much as the skilled. One that favors the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Flyers are by no means perfect. Goaltender Ron Hextall performed solidly in his return to Philadelphia last year but wound up allowing one soft goal in each game against New Jersey in the Eastern Conference finals. Philly is deep on defense, but there's no explosive defenseman who can win the occasional game all by himself. The Flyer penalty-killers ranked 18th in the league. Like everyone else, the Flyers could use a 30-goal man on the second line.
But Philadelphia has the game's best player, Eric Lindros, who centers John LeClair and Mikael Renberg on the NHL's best line. The Flyers also have two of hockey's top face-off men in Joel Otto and Craig MacTavish, strength up the middle, a year's playoff experience and none of the contract squabbles and bad feelings that could derail the Devils.
"There's a real eagerness that I haven't seen around here for quite a while," says Hextall, who returned to Philadelphia after having played for the Flyers from 1986-87 to 1991-92. "Last year I think we were all wondering how good we were, if we could make the playoffs. Now I think we just worry about how well we're going to do in the playoffs."
The Flyers, already the biggest team in the league, with players averaging 6'2", 203 pounds, got bigger in the off-season by signing two unrestricted free agents, the 6'4", 225-pound Otto and 6'6", 235-pound defenseman Kjell Samuelsson, who are both superb penalty-killers. Acquiring Otto was the master stroke. In the mid-1980s the late Bob Johnson, who was then the Calgary Flame coach, used Otto to help neutralize Mark Messier of the Edmonton Oilers in the Battles of Alberta. Philadelphia president Bob Clarke has the new Messier in Lindros, and he couldn't afford to let the rival New York Rangers, Messier's current club, sign Otto.
Clarke is betting that he has a team built for June He's right. The Flyers will beat the Red Wings and win the Cup.