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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. "We're aggressive."
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.
What McCammon 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.
Still, whatever 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 gone 24-3-2.
So while 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.