Over and Out?
Pale faced and glassy eyed, Flyers captain Eric Lindros walked away from his final postgame interview session of 1998 in mid-sentence, the camera lights burning brightly on his back as he strode out of the locker room. Last Friday, Philadelphia was again knocked out of the playoffs, this time in a stunning five games by the Sabres, and Lindros again had little to say. "Right now we're in shock," he said between long pauses and a few wayward glances. "It wasn't supposed to go like this."
Later, when the 25-year-old Lindros met up with family, friends and teammates at a Philadelphia restaurant, he was more vocal. The group talked well into the night about the Flyers and their tumultuous season, and the usually taciturn Lindros kept yakking even as members of his party excused themselves and went to bed.
There was, after all, a lot to discuss. This was the worst season of Lindros's career and could turn out to have been his last in Philadelphia. Lindros had his second-lowest point total (30 goals and 41 assists), and for the fifth time in six seasons he missed significant time because of injury. He was also missing in action when it counted most: Against Buffalo, a year after playing poorly in last spring's sweep by the Red Wings in the Cup finals, he had one goal and two assists in the series and just one shot in the final two games. In the clincher, a 3-2 overtime loss at the CoreStates Center, he didn't even get credit for a hit.
Just as disturbing is Lindros's growing reputation as a coach-killing star who lacks the leadership skills needed to raise the play of his teammates—the ultimate sign of greatness. Lindros captained the Canadian Olympic team, which was considered a bitter disappointment after it failed to get a medal in Nagano. In his six seasons with the Flyers, Philadelphia has never won a game in which it faced elimination and never won a series in which it lost the opener.
The Flyers' shortcomings weren't all Lindros's fault—there were more than a few front-office blunders (curious free-agent signings and trades, a late-season coaching change) that helped lead to Philly's early exit. But the Sabres, faced with their own organizational turmoil heading into this season, united and played inspired, while the Flyers and their captain froze. Before Game 2, Flyers coach Roger Neilson said, "Eric knows that if we win the Stanley Cup, he'll get the bulk of the credit, and if we lose in the first round, he'll get the bulk of the blame. It's tough on a kid to feel that much pressure. All superstars have to learn how to deal with that."
Eric's father and agent, Carl, believes that "Eric wants to make it work in Philadelphia." But it won't be surprising if the Flyers trade Lindros: Published reports during the season said Philadelphia may look to deal Lindros to the Maple Leafs for forward Mats Sundin or to the Coyotes for left wing Keith Tkachuk. A day before the Flyers were eliminated, general manager Bob Clarke was talking about altering the makeup of Philly's roster from the brawniest and most expensive in the league to one that is smaller, quicker and offers a better return on the dollar. Clarke's first order of business should be to deal—or deal with—Lindros.
When the NHL instituted a mid-season crackdown on obstruction fouls, skeptics assumed it would be a short-lived crusade. Once the close-checking playoffs began, we were sure all the hooking and holding, the grabbing and gouging would return, and the referees would simply skate away. "That's what happened whenever they tried to crack down in the past," says Coyotes winger Mike Gartner. "This time they're serious."
To the league's credit it has continued to call obstruction closely. The first 45 games of the playoffs had an average of 2.9 obstruction-related penalties, nearly three times as many as in last year's postseason. The calls contributed to a 12% increase in the number of power plays and also forced defensemen to keep their hands to themselves and give players room to move up-ice and create offense. "It used to be when a guy got a step, you could grab him," says Red Wings defenseman Larry Murphy. "You can't do that now. It makes things harder for defensemen, but it's better for the game."