Washington had beaten Philadelphia four times in seven regular-season games in 1987-88. The teams were so closely matched that they finished the season with identical records, even tying the final game 2-2. By the second game of the playoff series, their identities began to blur. Having lost the opener on their home ice, the Capitals shocked the hockey world by bullying the erstwhile Broad Street Bullies in Game 2, winning 5-4. There was Kevin Hatcher knocking Propp woozy with a cross-check to the neck. Craven had a tooth knocked out. There were Peter Sundstrom and Greg Adams, merrily running goalie Hextall into the boards. "If he wants to play like this," said Sundstrom of Hextail's wide-ranging, stick-swinging style, "he can expect the consequences."
One of the reasons the Caps were talking tough was Hunter, whose chutzpah rubs off on his teammates. Another was that Dave Brown is nursing a sore left wrist. Brown, one of the NHL's most notorious fighters, likes to lead with his left, but until the wrist gets better, he can't. It's sort of like Popeye in a spinachless society. That explains why the Caps' Bengt Gustafsson, who normally has little stomach for the rough stuff, was in Brown's face all week. Meanwhile the surly, muscular Tocchet, out of the lineup while recovering from a shoulder separation, got very antsy as he watched the Caps strafe the Flyers. "There are about 10 guys on that team I feel like killing," said Tocchet as the series headed to Philadelphia. "Live by the sword, die by the sword. If Hunter doesn't watch the way he uses his stick, he's gonna get hurt."
It was a fitting prologue to Game 3, which featured so much stickwork—and 135 penalty minutes—that it looked less like a hockey game than an open call for The Three Musketeers. Hunter spent his evening butt-ending, slashing and spearing Howe, Samuelsson and Hex-tall, but he failed to goad them into drawing penalties in retaliation. On his own, Hextall took cross-checking and slashing penalties and got a 10-minute misconduct for flipping a puck into Sundstrom's face while skating past the Caps bench.
Later, with a 40-foot skating start, Hunter bowled Hextall over. That enraged Keenan, who said after the game, "I don't know what would have happened if Hunter had maimed Ron Hextall, one of the superstars in the league." An equally acute remark would have been this: What would happen if Hextall had to serve out his own penalties? Hextall, who racked up 104 penalty minutes during the regular season—tying the NHL record he set last year—can vent his spleen with impunity, safe in the knowledge that he will never have to leave the game. In these times, with backup goalies always at the ready, it remains a mystery why the NHL permits a penalized goalie to stay in action while his penalty is served by a teammate.
As it happened, the evening's nearest thing to a maiming was inflicted on Hunter, not by him. With his own trusty stick, Tocchet cut Hunter twice, on his eyelid and cheekbone; each required three stitches. Doesn't anyone throw punches anymore? Ask Bob Gould, the Capitals forward, who was dropped by Ron Sutter, then again by Scott Mellanby. "We've got to learn," said a disgusted Murray after having watched referee Ron Hoggarth pack retaliators off to the penalty box right along with instigators, "that if everything's a trade-off, then lead with your right, baby."
The chippy, indeed brutal, play overshadowed a splendid defensive effort by the Flyers, who allowed Washington just 17 shots on goal. Presenting an especially difficult riddle for the Caps forwards was the 6'6" Samuelsson, the NHL's tallest player. In just his second full NHL season, he has progressed from being a stiff—the label he brought from the Rangers when Clarke acquired him last season—to an All-Star. True, his own coach picked him for the All-Star team—ahead of Washington's Stevens, a travesty—but Samuelsson has long since silenced his critics. With the score tied 3-3 at 15:26 of the second period of Game 3, Samuelsson pinched in behind Stevens, took Tocchet's neat feed and beat Pete Peeters to the stick side for the game-winning score. And the next night he scored the game-tying goal. "You can't get around the guy," says Brown, "and now he's scoring big goals for us. He does it all."
He has to. When Clarke packed McCrimmon off to Calgary, he did not foresee that Brad Marsh and Doug Crossman would have season-long slumps. Marsh has been particularly ineffective since suffering a concussion in December. Crossman and Keenan simply do not get along, and Crossman's play has gone downhill since the Canada Cup last summer. Keenan would like to stick with four defensemen through the playoffs but lacks four he trusts. Thus Howe and Samuelsson have been playing at least 30 minutes a game. Asked how he is holding up under the strain, Samuelsson says, "What do you mean? This is the best body in hockey!"
The teams, having dispensed with the matter of establishing mutual machismo awareness in Game 3, made Sunday's Game 4 about hockey. In fact, referee Denis Morel called only 22 minutes in penalties. The first and second periods were utterly tranquil, with the normally raucous Spectrum crowd unusually meek as the Flyers came out punchless. When Hunter's third goal of the playoffs put the Caps up 4-1 at 3:04 of the third period, Keenan, thinking the game was lost, pulled Hextall, apparently forgetting that when the month is April and the opponent is Washington, nothing is ever out of reach.
Afterward, Hunter surveyed the Caps' 3-1 hole rather optimistically. "It's been done before," he said of the task ahead. He was right—overcoming such a deficit in the playoffs has been done. But never by the Capitals.