The play of Howe
and Clarke isn't the only reason Philadelphia has excelled in man-down
situations. "For a hundred years the box [defense] was considered the way
to kill penalties." says McCammon of the formation in which two defensemen
and two forwards form a square in front of their goal. The general idea behind
that rather passive alignment is to limit the opponent's power play to passes
and shots from the perimeter, thus denying the knife-thrust rush or pass into
the slot. "We've gone away from that a little," says McCammon.
His system might
be best described as a constantly shifting trapezoid in which the player
nearest the puck pressures the puck carrier, making him pass it quickly. In
that 7-3 win over Edmonton, while Wilson sat out his five-minute infraction,
Philadelphia repeatedly disrupted the potent Oiler power play, permitting only
two shots on goal, neither of them by Wayne Gretzky, allowing nary a face-off
in the Flyer zone and practically forcing Edmonton Defenseman Paul Coffey to
high-stick Forward Mark Taylor with 1:28 left in the penalty to avert a
breakaway. On Sunday the Islanders, whose power play isn't too shabby either,
got zero shots on goal in three man-advantage situations.
McCammon also has
devised a tactic for coping with the Oilers, and Gretzky, in particular, in
even-up situations. "Unlike a lot of teams, we didn't play one man or one
line on him," said McCammon after the Edmonton game. "But when they got
control of the puck, we had our third forward positioned high to pick him up
early and stay with him through center ice." Thus Gretzky, who finished
with two assists and one shot on goal, was denied center ice, the staging area
for many of his sneakaways.
All is not
strategy and clean—or at least cleaner—living, however. Philadelphia has the
horses. Three Flyers played in last month's All-Star game, and all of them are
newcomers to the team: Howe, who at week's end had the best plus-minus rating
in the NHL with a +43 and may well win the Norris Trophy as the league's best
defenseman; Center Darryl Sittler, for 12 years a star with Toronto and an
almost certain Hall-of-Famer who came to the Flyers in a trade in January 1982;
and Lindbergh, who had two sensational seasons under McCammon in Maine, where
he was voted the AHL's MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1981.
The addition of
Howe, Brad McCrimmon, acquired in a June deal that sent Goaltender Pete Peeters
to Boston, and Miroslav Dvorak from Czechoslovakia gives McCammon "the
mobility on defense that we didn't have last year." The impressive bottom
line is that after 62 games only the Bruins had yielded fewer goals (172) than
Philadelphia (174). Up front, the most recognizable Flyers are Sittler, who had
a team-high 36 goals at week's end, Barber, who had 23 points in his last 21
games, and Clarke, the team's leading scorer with 74 points. At 33, Clarke is
having his best season since 1975-76, when he finished with 119 points and was
a first-team All-Star, and he's playing with a passion perhaps not seen in the
NHL since the prime of Maurice Richard.
calls "our unknowns"—rookies like Taylor and Lindsay Carson and
second-year man Ray Allison—also have had much to do with Philly's success.
"A lot of teams might have given up on players like them in the
minors," says McCammon. "They're not the kind of guys who catch your
eye. You have to coach them to realize how much they can do for you."
He should know.
Ten Flyers played for McCammon during his second hitch in Maine. The two most
important Mariner alumni are Lindbergh, the only rookie to play in the All-Star
game, and fellow Goaltender Bob Froese (pronounced froze), who's also in his
first season. As of Sunday, Lindbergh had an 18-8-3 record and a 2.66
goals-against average, second only to Peeters' 2.25 among net-minders with at
least 20 starts, but he hadn't played since Feb. 13 because Froese had been
nearly unbeatable. Froese had started the last five games, and his overall
record was 14-1-1, with a 1.94 goals-against average.
their accomplishments to date, one has to wonder how this new wave of Flyers
will fare in the playoffs. Only two teams—the 1943-44 Canadiens with Bill
Durnan and the 1970-71 Canadiens with Ken Dryden—have ever won the Stanley Cup
with a rookie in the nets. Only four teams have won the Cup with a coach with
so little time behind an NHL bench. "This club has more talent than any in
the history of the franchise," says Joe Watson, "but what it doesn't
have—or at least what we don't know that it has—is maturity, the feeling on
great teams that you can always find a way to win." Perhaps, but in games
this season against the top 11 teams, the Flyers, through Sunday, had a 16-9-5
record, second only to Boston's. Overall, in its last 29 games Philadelphia had
McCammon's reforms may have put the Flyers on track for a run at the Stanley
Cup, some things about Philadelphia haven't changed. Most NHL teams have
abandoned the custom of subjecting rookies to the dreaded "shave," but
Philadelphia has shown no such humanitarian inclination. A few days before the
All-Star game, Flyer veterans seized Lindbergh and Froese and shaved their
heads. To cover the damage, Lindbergh took to wearing a narrow-brimmed soft
hat. "For two or three weeks I have to go around looking like Inspector
Clouseau," says Lindbergh. In Philadelphia these days, that's better than
looking like Rocky Balboa.