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THOSE LOW-FLYING FLYERS
Austin Murphy
December 07, 1987
Stanley Cup finalist Philadelphia is struggling to keep from falling on its face
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December 07, 1987

Those Low-flying Flyers

Stanley Cup finalist Philadelphia is struggling to keep from falling on its face

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Just as the coroner was about to tie a tag to it, the Philadelphia Flyers wiggled a big toe. Showing that there may be life in them yet, the Flyers last week defeated Buffalo and Quebec, the first time they had put together back-to-back wins since mid-October. Before those victories, the defending Wales Conference champions had won just six of their first 22 games this season, the worst percentage (.341) in the NHL. Team Work Ethic—the All-Grit, No-Superstars, Bottom-Line Bunch that came within a game of winning the Stanley Cup last May—spent much of November snuggled up to the bottom line of the Patrick Division, dead last.

Philadelphians don't have enough fingers to tick off all the reasons for their team's faltering start. Some guys didn't heal on time. Some guys misbehaved and had to serve suspensions. Some guys played all summer and reported for duty burned out. The coach was too mean. The general manager was too timid—wouldn't swing the Big Deal that would make everything fine again.

"If there's one reason, there are 15," said Flyers coach Mike Keenan after Wednesday's 5-2 win over Buffalo. "We didn't fall through a trapdoor into this thing, and we're not going to get shot out of a cannon and just suddenly escape it. You take steps to get into a slump, you take steps to get out of one."

The Buffalo game was Step 1. Three nights later the Flyers took Step 2, as six different players scored in a 6-3 win at Quebec. "The ship is righting itself," said Keenan. Well, let's just say it wasn't listing quite so badly. The win at Le Colis�e earned Philadelphia its first points on the road in seven games, dating back to Oct. 26 against the Rangers. That was the night the Flyers tied New York 2-2, and it is the date to which many of the Flyers' problems are pegged. Late in the third period of that game, Philadelphia right wing and cleanup hitter Dave Brown made a blindside crosscheck on Ranger forward Tomas Sandstrom's jaw. It was all Sandstrom's fault, Brown claimed, because Sandstrom had first speared Flyers defenseman Mark Howe in the protective cup.

Not even the lenient NHL could buy the idea that the punishment meted out by Brown fit the alleged crime, and the league suspended him for 15 games. He will be out until Dec. 6. In the jerk of a knee, G.M. Bobby Clarke acquired aging (35-year-old) mercenary Nick Fotiu to hit in Brown's place. But Fotiu no longer makes opponents quake. "We definitely miss David," says Clarke, who frequently laces up his skates at practice and works with Brown to help refine the winger's skills.

Without Brown's intimidating presence, Philly is blowing more leads than Inspector Clouseau. In the past three seasons under Keenan, the Flyers had kissed away only five third-period leads in 290 games. But with their souffl�like collapse against the Islanders on Nov. 21, in which the Isles came back from a 4-1 third-period deficit to win 6-4, the Flyers had performed their third final-period swoon of this season.

Through it all, Clarke and Keenan have given the appearance of remaining unruffled and very much in control. Clarke has made no major trades during the drought, although he did put in a strong bid for All-Star Oiler holdout Paul Coffey, coming in a close second to Pittsburgh in the bidding for the offensive defenseman. "We're not going to throw guys in the river for going through a dry spell," says Clarke. "These guys didn't forget how to play hockey over the summer."

On the contrary, many of the Flyers—goalie Ron Hextall, forwards Rick Tocchet and Brian Propp, and defenseman Doug Crossman—were players for Keenan on Team Canada in the Canada Cup series. But while Keenan was working 14-hour days devising the tactics that would help Team Canada defeat the Soviet Union two games to one for the Cup championship, other NHL coaches were getting a six-week head start on him. The Flyers' training camp was chaotic, what with the staggered arrivals of the coach and so many star players. "It was so disrupted, there's no question that it hurt us," says Clarke.

Keenan is a warm fellow away from the ice—he was lead vocalist and a keyboardist with Nick and the Nice Guys, a band he joined with some college pals—but he did not become a hockey coach to make friends. And if anyone ever needed proof of that, the Flyers' slump provided it. Keenan has benched two of the Flyers who were standouts for him on Team Canada—Tocchet and Crossman—and has also sat down centers Ron Sutter—a Sutter, benched?—and Peter Zezel and winger Ilkka Sinisalo.

It was during a lethargic Flyers loss in St. Louis on Nov. 10 that Keenan pulled Tocchet out of the game at the start of the second period. Afterward Tocchet was widely quoted as saying, "I'm not going to go out and just fight." The Flyers, of course, have long been accused of starting fights when things aren't going well for them. For their part, the Philadelphia coaches insisted that Tocchet had not been told to fight but simply to play more hard-nosed hockey.

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