When Philadelphia Flyers coach Terry Murray started neophyte goaltender Garth Snow in the team's first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs last month, he noted that even the Flyers' Hall of Fame net-minder of the 1960s and '70s, Bernie Parent, had to make his first postseason start sometime. This is true. In Philadelphia's 5-4 loss on Sunday to the New York Rangers, it is unlikely that Parent would have played any better than Snow—considering Parent is now 52.
If the Flyers defeat the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals, which were tied 1-1 at week's end, and go on to win the Stanley Cup, they will probably do so despite their goaltending. Not that the tandem of Snow and Ron Hextall is Laurel and Hardy, but the other three goalies still playing—Mike Richter of the Rangers, Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche and Mike Vernon of the Detroit Red Wings—have won Cups and are better than either goaltender in Philadelphia's tandem.
The 27-year-old Snow, in his second full season, is a late bloomer who had never started four NHL games in a row before Philly's opening-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, in which he started all five games. The energetic but erratic Hextall, 33, has put up good numbers during his 11-year career, but he has a tendency to allow soft goals. Moreover, he finished the regular season with horrendous performances against the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils.
Philadelphia is flouting the most sacred tenet of playoff hockey by trying to finesse a Stanley Cup without a clear-cut No. 1 goaltender, the equivalent of a football team's trying to win the Super Bowl without a stud quarterback. NHL clubs have accomplished the feat, most recently in 1972 when the Boston Bruins alternated Gerry Cheevers and Ed Johnston, but it's a tough way to go.
Murray declared before the series against New York that he would play the goalie who was on a roll. He wasn't counting on Snow's being toasted. In Philly's 3-1 victory over the Rangers in the opener last Friday, the Flyers gave Snow a two-goal margin for error in the first five minutes and didn't allow a breakaway or even an odd-man rush. They were far less vigilant on Sunday, though New York didn't exactly bombard Snow when it scored on three of its first four and five of its first 10 shots. There were some bad breaks for Philadelphia—for example, a quirky bounce off the glass in the CoreStates Center allowed Wayne Gretzky to score on a backhander from the slot—but at least two of the five goals were as soft as oatmeal. The most deflating was Gretzky's third, a low drive that ticked off Snow's glove two minutes after Philly had scrambled back to tie the game 3-3. Gretzky's 10th playoff hat trick should have moved the question of Snow's shakiness from the preponderance-of-evidence category to beyond-a-reasonable-doubt, but Murray's patience, one of his strengths as a coach, turned into a weakness. Only after Mark Messier scored on a two-on-one with 6:15 left in the second period to put New York ahead 5-3 did Murray look down the bench to Hextall, who, except for having won the fifth and final game in the Flyers' second-round series against the Buffalo Sabres, had been Philadelphia's $2.2 million doorman in the playoffs.
When asked about Snow in the postgame press conference, Rangers coach Colin Campbell smiled and waved off the question. Meanwhile the Flyers continued to swear by their goalies, never at them. "I feel good about our goaltending," captain Eric Lindros said. "I'm not down at all."
Neither was Philadelphia general manager Bob Clarke. Before the March 18 trading deadline, Clarke had considered acquiring Felix Potvin from the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the cost—the package would have had to include Mikael Renberg, who usually plays right wing with Lindros on the Legion of Doom line—had seemed exorbitant for a seemingly meager upgrade in goal. Clarke had been loath to fiddle with a splendid young nucleus that should make Philadelphia a Stanley Cup contender for years to come and had decided to take a chance with Hextall, who has a no-trade clause in a deal that runs for two more seasons, and with Snow, a $345,000 bargain who is particularly compatible with Hextall. Murray was going to have to sort them out, which he seemed to be doing brilliantly until Sunday, when Snow suddenly melted under the glare of the red light.
Only a week earlier Murray had artfully navigated around a goaltender controversy that flared up over, of all things, a verb. After using Hextall in Game 5 against Buffalo (Hextall's first start in 28 days), Murray explained the switch by saying that Snow had suffered a "loss of focus" in Game 4 of the Sabres' series, a 5-4 overtime defeat, and "I don't want to lose him, he's going to be a good goalie." Snow responded that he thought he already was a good goalie. There are often tense moments in the playoffs, but the Flyers were having a moment over tenses. The miniscandal—call it Conjugate—engrossed sportswriters and grammarians in Philadelphia for almost a week, though Murray and Snow had hashed out the matter at a meeting the following day. "Snowy told me he just wished I'd said that he'd played brutal [in Game 4 against Buffalo]," Murray says. "He didn't. I just thought I saw a goalie who was a little distracted."
However, having inadvertently ignited a brushfire, Murray was not above letting it turn into a full-fledged smoke screen. Observers around the NHL had several questions about Philly as it entered the postseason—most notably whether Lindros, in his fifth year, was ready to take the Flyers to the top—but in Philadelphia the talk was all-goalies all-the-time. Even after telling his netminders before practice last Thursday that Snow would start Game 1 against the Rangers, Murray swore them to secrecy. Hextall looked buoyant in the locker room after practice, and Snow seemed subdued. Snow insists it was unintentional, but his was at least as good an acting job as the dive New York tough guy Shane Churla took to draw a chintzy interference penalty against Philly's John LeClair in Game 1.
The truth is, which goalie is in net hardly matters. Hextall is on his way down and Snow is on his way up, and they meet somewhere in the middle of the pack of NHL goal-tenders. "You wonder how many series they expect to win," said one Eastern Conference general manager late in the regular season, "when the other team is going to have a goaltender who is better than their two."