The Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers collided in an 1-95 series last week, and when it was over they called a tow truck for the Caps. The second-place Flyers shoved—also hooked, held, tripped, slashed, cross-checked and high-sticked—their way into a first-place tie with the Caps in the Patrick Division by winning Thursday's 9-6 shootout in Philadelphia and Friday's 4-2 meat grinder in Landover, Md. After Sunday night's 11-4 thrashing of Pittsburgh, following the Caps' 3-2 loss to Boston, the Flyers were two points up.
"The significance of the series is that it was a dress rehearsal for the playoffs," said Philadelphia's rookie coach, Mike Keenan, whose young team brought to mind a scaled-down version of the old Broad Street Bullies and clearly established itself as having the talent, poise and toughness to be a force in Stanley Cup play.
Force was a key word in both games. Ten seconds after referee Dave Newell dropped the puck in Philly, the Caps—and Newell—made the series' first mistakes. As the Flyers dumped the puck behind the Washington net, there was Capital goalie Pat Riggin viciously swinging the blade of his stick into Flyer center Peter Zezel's left cheek. "A cheap shot," said Zezel. "He might've taken my eye out." But instead of handing down a seemingly deserved five-minute major, Newell let Riggin off with two minutes for high-sticking. This was a fairly clear message, one not lost on the Flyers, that Newell would not be calling a tight game. The Flyers exploited that fact.
It took only 24 seconds of the ensuing power play for the Flyers to burn the woeful Capital penalty killing (the Caps have the NHL's second-best defensive record but the second-worst penalty-killing percentage). Tim Kerr's shot from the left circle went high on the short side past a handcuffed Riggin.
"How do you stop Kerr?" Washington coach Bryan Murray was asked before the game.
"We don't," said Murray, pointing out that the big (6'3", 225 pounds) Philly forward had nine goals in five previous games against the Caps, including four in the teams' previous meeting. On Thursday, Kerr, the NHL's fourth-leading goal scorer, got three more. "I'm convinced the only way to stop Kerr is to clutch and grab him and hold his stick," said Murray. But Washington had been unable or unwilling to do that, and Kerr spent most of the evening camped in front of the Capitals' goal. "You can't outphysical him," said the Washington defenseman Rod Langway.
After falling behind 2-0 in the first 49 seconds—Dave Poulin, who would also end up with a hat trick, scored goal No. 2—the Caps surged to a 4-2 second-period lead on two power-play goals by defenseman Scott Stevens, one of the few Caps willing to get physical with the Flyers, and scores by Dave Christian and Bobby Carpenter. But all the while Philly was getting the better of the body work. The Flyers may not be gooning it up to the extent they did in the '70s, but they came into the game with 1,200 penalty minutes to Washington's 831 and showed throughout the series that they're learning fast.
Philadelphia forwards Lindsay Carson and Rich Sutter took turns chopping at Langway, and the game wasn't four minutes old when Flyer forward Rick Tocchet nearly put Capital forward Bob Gould's head through the boards with a brutal check, for which he got two minutes for boarding instead of a more appropriate five-minute major. All game long the Flyers made good on defenseman Brad Marsh's assertion, "We can't let them come in here and play comfortable hockey."
The turning point in the game and probably in the series—possibly even in the season—came midway through the second period, when Philadelphia got Langway off the ice. In the old days, the Broad Street Bullies would have a couple of thugs beat on the opposition's best players—Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Rod Gilbert, Gilbert Perreault—and provoke them into fights and other retaliatory tactics. Three thugs for one Orr, say, was an advantageous swap for the Bullies. Now it was Langway whom Philly wanted to neutralize.
"They kept yelling on the bench, 'Get Langway. Get Langway,' " said Murray the next day. And they did get him. Langway suffered one indignity after another, and when Carson tried to spear him, he finally retaliated. He won the fight (with three solid rights to the head and a takedown), but it pretty much cost Washington the game. Carson and Langway drew five minutes apiece for fighting, but Carson was no real loss to Philly. On the other hand, while the NHL's two-time Norris Trophy winner languished in the penalty box, Washington gave up two goals to Poulin.