Uneasy lies the soul of Lester Patrick over what has become of his namesake division. For that matter, two of his grandsons—Craig Patrick, who is the general manager-coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Dick, the president of the Washington Capitals—aren't sleeping too well, either. In the NHL's low-rent Patrick Division, six teams toss and turn nightly on the same hard bed.
On Sunday night the last-place Philadelphia Flyers, though they were nine games below .500, were only 15 points out of first place. The New York Rangers, who had opened up a gaping—at least by Patrick standards—eight-point lead over the second-place New Jersey Devils, were on their way to their first title of any kind since 1941-42, when Lester, the old Silver Fox himself, was their general manager. But mention the giddy possibility of a division title to Ranger coach Roger Neilson and his face takes on the grim look of a Patrick Division game. "You win a game in this division, and you think about finishing in first place," says Neilson. "Lose one, and you worry about finishing last."
There are two philosophies of hockey in the Patrick: freewheeling, as practiced by Pittsburgh, and bump-and-grind, as demonstrated by the rest of the teams. But there is only one philosophy of life: fatalism. "We've been winning some close ones," says Ranger defenseman Brian Leetch. "We haven't exactly been dominating." So it is that a team representing a spooked-out franchise that last won a Stanley Cup 50 years ago charges onto the ice each night with this ringing battle cry: "We can still mess this up!" All things are possible in the Patrick, where the season always starts over tomorrow.
"I'm not going to say it's bad," says Bill Torrey, the New York Islanders' general manager. "It's, uh, different."
The Patrick Division won't break any records for victories this season, but it may smash the alltime NHL mark for mediocrity previously held by the Norris Division. The Norris, long a deserving object of scorn, now has three teams with winning records. The Patrick, meanwhile, has become, as folks in the division like to say, "competitive night in and night out." Yeah, sure. The Islanders were winless in 12 games (0-9-3) through Sunday and still in the running for a playoff spot. So were the Devils, who three weeks ago had a 1-8-3 stretch. Even the Rangers, who really do have the best team, went 1-11-4 just before the midseason mark. Every team in the Patrick has had a share of first and last place at some point this season.
The Capitals lack a big gun, the Flyers have grown old, the Islanders are too young. The Devils have the most talent but the worst M.O. And the Penguins—with Mario Lemieux incapacitated for perhaps the rest of the regular season with a herniated disk and goalie Tom Barrasso taking personal leave to be with his two-year-old daughter, Ashley, who has cancer—will have to make the playoffs by default.
It never used to be like this. The Patrick Division used to have class. It had "contendahs." The season the division was created, 1974-75, the Flyers won their second straight Stanley Cup. The Islanders won four straight Cups from '80 to '83 and established themselves as one of the great teams in the history of the game. Even after the Isles faltered, the Patrick remained so strong that Washington amassed 100-plus points for three straight seasons ('83-84 through '85-86) and finished second all three times. Over a span of three seasons, from '84-85 through '86-87, the Flyers had either the NHL's best or second-best record and made the Stanley Cup finals twice.
But the Patrick has slipped badly since then. Only the Rangers and Islanders have had winning records outside the division this season. Of the four divisions, only the Patrick doesn't have a cumulative winning record against the rest of the league.
There may be no upsets in the Patrick, but there's always a potential for irony. Which is why you might just like the Capitals' chances: For the past seven seasons, the Caps have had winning records without ever getting out of the divisional playoffs. Now that they've fallen below .500, could it finally be their year?
The Caps usually stumbled in the playoffs because of superior goaltending by the opposition. The Patrick has long been a goaltender's division, and the point could be made that much of this season's mediocrity is a result of good goalies having bad seasons.