If there is a more thankless job in sports than that of backup goaltender, it is the job of backup goaltender for the Philadelphia Flyers. Ron Hextall is the Flyers' territorial, stick-brandishing net-minder, and he hates only one thing more than an opponent in his crease: a night off. As Hextall's understudy, Ken Wregget has become adept at opening and closing the gate to the team bench.
So you couldn't blame 16,025 Pittsburgh Penguin fans at Civic Arena for cheering when, minutes before Saturday's seventh and decisive game of the Patrick Division finals, it was announced that Hextall would not be in uniform. He had sprained his right knee during Philly's 6-2 victory in Game 6 and would be replaced by Wregget.
When Flyer general manager Bobby Clarke obtained him from the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 6 for two first-round draft picks, Clarke's critics said he had been fleeced. Since his arrival, Wregget had started only twice and was 1-1-0, with a 6.0 goals-against average. So the way looked clear for another scoring binge by Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, who had gotten five goals in Game 5 alone, four of them against Hextall.
But there was Clarke in the Flyer dressing room after Saturday's game, the picture of beaming vindication. "We were never worried," he said after Philly's 4-1 win. "We didn't think goaltending was going to cost us the game." Indeed, the understudy made 39 saves, and the goal he gave up was an armor-piercing shell of a Lemieux slap shot from the right circle early in the second period. Nothing to be ashamed of there.
Wregget, 25, had undergone his Flyer "initiation rite" earlier in the week, after he was summoned from the bench for the second time 33 minutes into Game 5 to bail out Hextall, who had let in nine pucks. In addition to stopping the Penguins the rest of the way ( Lemieux did get an empty-net goal toward the end of Pittsburgh's 10-7 victory), Wregget strayed from his crease when a skirmish broke out with nine seconds remaining and engaged Pittsburgh defenseman Rod Buskas in hand-to-hand combat.
After his first playoff win as a Flyer, Wregget dutifully spouted the refrain parroted by, it is believed, every winning goaltender in NHL history: "The guys played great in front of me." On this night, however, the line rang true. Philly's defensemen kept stray Penguins from Wregget's front porch and kept Wregget's sight lines clear. The penalty-killing unit of Mark Howe, Dave Poulin, Brian Propp and Kjell Samuelsson foiled power play after power play, and even orchestrated a shorthanded goal by Poulin in the second period to put the Flyers up 2-1. On the other hand, Philadelphia was fortunate that the Penguins "were just brutal tonight. We couldn't do a damn thing," is how one Pittsburgh player put it.
Wregget didn't seem surprised that he had come in cold and succeeded. "I kind of knew what to expect," he said. "I'd already seen six games between our teams. I'd had a pretty good seat."