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 Stanley Cup.
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 the count.
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 history.