For two wild nights in New York City he wielded his stick like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, cut more laces than a rusty Bic, ruined more smiles than gum disease and, as always, enjoyed every last, gory minute of it. Eric Lindros sent the Eastern Conference finals between his Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers into a violent frenzy, and the action at times seemed unfit for young children or the faint of heart. From press row came pleas for order, for sanity, for an end to this human cockfight on ice. The series featured a glamorous cast of superstars, and someone, it was said, had to stop the madness and let the world appreciate the artistry and intensity of clean playoff hockey. Someone had to do something.
Someone did: Lindros. Which was only fair. He made the mess, so he had to clean it up. With a pair of unforgettable late goals, one in Game 3 and another in Game 4, Lindros displayed a Hair for the dramatic that matched his thirst for blood. The Flyers' captain buried the aging Rangers, propelled his team toward the finals and assumed a new and elevated place in the game. Just like that, the bull sat down in the china shop and poured himself some tea.
In Game 3 on May 20, a 6-3 Philadelphia victory that gave the Flyers a 2-1 series lead. Lindros beat New York captain Mark Messier to the puck and completed a hat trick with an empty-net goal that seemed to be more a transfer of power than a point on the scoreboard. Three nights later, after pounding the Rangers with a sledgehammer, Lindros cut out their heart with a scalpel, flicking in a spectacular 15-foot backhanded shot with 6.8 seconds left that gave the Flyers a 3-2 win and knocked the life out of a resilient team. Such pinpoint precision from such an unrelenting brute seemed almost unfair.
Philadelphia went on to eliminate New York in five games, winning 4-2 on Sunday at the CoreStates Center to earn its first trip to the Stanley Cup finals since 1987. At this point, standing between Lindros and a Cup may be like standing between Frank and Kathie Fee. "We're happy to make the finals, but our mission is not complete," Lindros said after getting a goal and an assist in the Game 5 victory.
After Sunday's clincher, an NHL official tried to hand Lindros the Prince of Wales trophy, the reward for winning the conference championship. The Flyers' captain, ornery to the end, refused to be seen with the ersatz cup, and skated away. "Perfect," said Flyers coach Terry Murray, with a smile. "He knows the one you want to pick up and carry around with your teammates is the next one."
Since he first stepped onto the ice for Philadelphia in 1992, Lindros has been knocking on the door of the elite class of NHL players, and now he appears ready to kick his way in. His reckless, slam-dancing style has too often left him injured or watching from the penalty box, but at age 24 and finishing his fifth year in the league, Lindros may at last take the next step. At week's end he was tied for second in scoring in these playoffs with 11 goals and 12 assists, and he is healthy heading into the finals. The 6'4", 236-pound Lindros has long been viewed as a player who has it all—size, speed, skill and a mean streak so wide that it probably has its own locker—but without a championship ring, the package is never complete. "There's no doubt that Eric is on his way," says Philadelphia defenseman Paul Coffey, who has four Stanley Cup rings from his days with the Edmonton Oilers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. "But you've got to get that ring on your finger before your name goes up there with those other guys."
Those other guys, of course, are the three premier players of this generation: Messier, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Fittingly, all three were eliminated from '96-97 Stanley Cup play by Lindros's Flyers. When Philadelphia knocked out the Penguins in five games in the first round, Lemieux pulled Lindros aside on the ice after the final game. "I told him it was his time," says Lemieux, who retired after the series. "That team can win the Stanley Cup."
Lemieux was in his seventh year in the league when he won his first Cup; Gretzky and Messier were in their fifth seasons with the Oilers when they won theirs. It looks like Lindros's time is now. After steamrollering the Buffalo Sabres in five games in the second round, the Flyers met up with the Rangers, a rivalry that was one of the hottest in sports long before Lindros arrived. All he did was crank up the thermostat about a thousand degrees. Don King and Bob Arum would sell their souls, if they had souls, for the kind of theater Lindros brought to this matchup.
After he refused to play for the Quebec Nordiques, who had selected him with the first pick in the '91 draft, Lindros was the subject of a bidding war between the Flyers and the Rangers, both of whom made overwhelming offers to Quebec for his rights. Both thought they had a deal with the Nordiques, who relocated before the 1995-96 season and are now the Colorado Avalanche. It took an arbitrator's ruling to deliver Lindros to Philadelphia, and five years later the trade still provides hockey fans with some of their best barroom debates. The Flyers gave up six players (including Peter Forsberg), two first-round draft picks and $15 million—and last spring the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup. The Hockey News recently ran a story that claimed Forsberg alone is better than Lindros.
The Flyers, however, are not looking for a refund. Although they are making their first trip to the finals with Lindros, they have a new $210 million arena and probably can pay Lindros's $4.2 million salary with the profits from the orange-and-black number-88 jerseys that blanket the region. Lindros has returned a kind of macho, red-meat aura to the team once known as the Broad Street Bullies. It seems the chip he wears on his shoulder is big enough to share with his teammates as well as the entire city.