Philadelphia flyers Coach Mike Keenan isn't much with a one-liner. But the Führer, as he is sometimes called by his charges, did drop a good one on Sunday night at the Spectrum. The Flyers had just overcome a three-goal deficit in the last 10 minutes of regulation and had beaten the Washington Capitals 5-4 in overtime. The dramatic victory gave Philadelphia a three-games-to-one lead in the Patrick Division semifinals, all but guaranteeing that it would advance to the next round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Said Keenan with a perfectly straight face, "It was about time we got a break."
That is rich. Granted, the Flyers—who have been in the Cup finals three times in the '80s alone, only to come away empty each time—have had a tough year, thanks largely to themselves. General manager Bobby Clarke's trade of black-sheep defenseman Brad McCrimmon to Calgary has proved damaging, if not disastrous. Perennial 50-garbage-goal-scorer Tim Kerr missed much of the season with shoulder woes. He is back but rusty, a condition reflected in the Flyers' power play, which has been dismal all year and at week's end ranked 15th among the 16 playoff teams. The suspensions of goal tender Ron Hex tall (eight games) and designated hitter Dave Brown (15 games) hurt, as did a deluge of injuries that cost the Flyers 244 man-games. It all added up to Philadelphia's worst season since 1972.
Excuse the Capitals if they remain dry-eyed at the Flyers' plight. The Caps, after all, were a defeat away from extinction. The last break they got was in 1979, when the league agreed to place them in the Patrick Division.
Now the Caps can't get out. In eight seasons in the Patrick, the Caps have never survived the division playoffs. Bryan Murray became the coach in 1981, and since 1982, Washington has consistently been one of the best regular-season teams in the league. "Which means nothing if you have no success in the playoffs," admits defenseman Larry Murphy. Each spring the cherry trees burst into blossom, and each spring the Caps fold.
The Caps don't get breaks. No, the Caps break hearts. On April 20, 1987, the New York Islanders beat Washington in the fourth sudden-death overtime period—after two hours and eight minutes of hockey, at 1:58 a.m.—of the seventh and deciding game of the first round. To fully appreciate what a vintage Caps performance it was, one must note that they had led the Isles three games to one in that series. In their sordid playoff history the Caps have twice blown multigame leads.
The current series was not even nine minutes from being tied at two games apiece on Sunday when the Caps, leading 4-1, reverted to form. Flyer defenseman Mark Howe wristed a screened shot past teammate Brian Propp and Caps goalie Clint Malarchuk, and it was 4-2. Four minutes later Propp took Rick Tocchet's feed at Malarchuk's doorstep and made it 4-3. And with just 53 seconds to play and Flyers goalie Mark LaForest on the bench, Kjell Samuelsson—Ichabod Crane on blades—materialized on the edge of a goalmouth scramble to poke the game-tying goal through Malarchuk's pads.
If Scott Stevens (bruised right shoulder) and/or Rod Langway (charley horse), the Capitals' two best defense-men—indeed, the Capitals' two best players—had been on the ice, Samuels-son would not have been standing there to score that goal. Rather, he would have been on his ponderous duff, looking about to see what had hit him.
So the Caps shuffled off to their dressing room, heads down, burdened as much by the weight of their grim postseason history as by fatigue. An equipment boy slapped shoulders as they trudged past, shouting "Gonna get 'em in the OT, dudes. No doubt about it!" No one could look him in the eye.
Overtime was mercifully short. On the Flyers' third rush, Murray Craven and Tocchet collided comically behind the Capitals' net. The puck squirted into the right corner, where Dave Poulin dug it out and found Tocchet, who fed Craven in the slot. Craven deked Malarchuk to his knees, then flipped the game-winner into the net.
If Washington loses the series, Capitals owner Abe Pollin surely will start greasing his guillotine. Pollin endorses Murray frequently. He also endorsed ex-Washington Bullets coach Kevin Loughery before he fired him. All season there was speculation that Murray—and possibly David Poile, the general manager—would be purged if the Caps did not get out of the division playoffs. Poile acquired fearless stickman Dale Hunter from Quebec for the express purpose of dealing with the Flyers' fistic tendencies. In the series' first four games Hunter was the most conspicuously dirty player on the ice, which is saying something when your opponent is the Flyers. He also scored three goals.