The Philadelphia Flyers were a particularly sullen crew as they boarded their plane to Montreal after Sunday night's 3-0 skunking at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. The question floating around the team was not, Can the Flyers claw their way out of the three-games-to-one hole they found themselves in in the Wales Conference final? Or, even, Can they win another game? Rather, the question was, When would the Flyers score their next goal?
Based on their performance in the previous three games, it might be next October. The Flyers scored but one goal in three straight losses to the Habs, and even the vaunted Philly power play, the NHL's best this season, was 0 for its last 15 tries.
Not that players like Tim Kerr, Brian Propp and Rick Tocchet, Philly's recently silenced big guns, had anything to be ashamed of. As Canadiens center Bobby Smith said after the Habs' utterly one-sided win at the Spectrum on Sunday night, "This was as close as we've come to perfect defensive play."
If the Habs' defense ever achieves that elusive perfect game, goalie Patrick Roy will be able to nap, or banter in French with his goalposts—as he sometimes does—for the full 60 minutes. Circling like so many covered wagons, the Habs form a "box" of muscle and lumber around their goalie. For three games the Flyers viewed that box strictly from the outside. Kerr, the hulking Philadelphia forward who went into the series with 14 playoff goals—nine more than Montreal's highest scorer, Smith—took only nine shots through Game 4, none of them successful. Roy wasn't giving up rebounds, either. "With them you get one chance," said Flyer coach Paul Holmgren. "After that you don't get another."
After each Philadelphia loss a chorus of "if onlys" filled the Flyers' dressing room: If only we were healthier; if only we had scored first. Indeed, playing catch-up with the Habs is an exercise in Sisyphean frustration. "You have to gamble," said Flyer defenseman Kjell Samuelsson, "and then they make you pay for it." Perhaps no team in the league is as comfortable nursing a lead as Montreal is. Of the 47 regular-season games in which the Habs had a lead going into the final period, they won 42.
Feuding between the teams has increased the tension—not that the Flyers really get along with any club in the NHL. The squabbling started in 1987, when, to the league's deep embarrassment, the players brawled for 15 minutes during the warmups for Game 6 of the Wales final. This year it took Habs defenseman Chris Chelios all of about 27 minutes in Game 1, played in the Forum, to bring that bad blood roiling to the surface.
With a flying elbow that would have done Jack Tatum proud, Chelios—whose talent is often overshadowed by his inability to resist a cheap shot—drove Flyer winger Brian Propp's head into one of the metal stanchions that hold the Plexiglas in place. Despite his helmet, Propp was unconscious as he went down, and his head bounced off the ice like a bowling ball. He ended up with a gash on the back of his head and a concussion. Though Propp would miss the next game, the Flyers rallied to his cause in Game 1 and defeated the Canadiens 3-1, ending Roy's streak of 34 straight undefeated games in the Forum.
Chelios wasn't penalized by referee Kerry Fraser or by the NHL's dean of discipline, Brian O'Neill, who ruled that Chelios hadn't meant to injure Propp. Chelios even expressed remorse: "I like Brian, and I'm really happy he's O.K. If I could take it back, I would." Some Flyers weren't buying it. Through the media they put out the word that Chelios would be a marked man for the rest of the series.
The threat boomeranged. "We were ready because of what we read in the paper," said Roy after shutting out the Flyers 3-0 in Game 2. "We see comments by [forwards] Rick Tocchet and Al Secord, how they're gonna bump us, do everything to us. We don't like that."
After Roy took his own revenge with the Game 2 shutout to start a new streak and even the series at one game each, the combatants were off to the Spectrum, where the ice is lousy and the patrons hostile. The Habs were unconcerned. "Just because a team pushes and shoves after the whistle doesn't mean we're gonna lose to them," said Smith.
Chelios seemed unfazed by the Flyers' head-hunting shots at him. That's old hat for Chelios; he's already roundly disliked by 20 teams, not just Philadelphia. While such Flyers as Tocchet and Keith Acton repeatedly applied their sticks to his head and shoulders, Chelios attended to the business of winning games.
In Game 2, for example, he battled two Flyers behind the Philadelphia goal, dug the puck out and fed rookie defenseman Eric Desjardins, alone in front, for Montreal's second goal. Two nights later, in Philadelphia, Chelios's seeing-eye setup from 50 feet resulted in a Bob Gainey goal as the Habs had their way with the Flyers 5-1. On Sunday night Chelios turned a bad second period for the Flyers into a disastrous one when he scored on a blistering 30-foot shot, the Habs' second goal of the period.
Having the ability to take care of business had to please the Canadiens, who had not been overwhelming in their two previous playoff series, against Hartford and Boston. "The fact was, we played well enough to win, no more," said 37-year-old defenseman Larry Robinson.
Somehow, Robinson, the ancient yet elegant warrior, improves with age. After turning in stretches of tentative play last season, Robinson is his old unerring self. Like a pair of old sharks closing in on wounded quarry, he and the 35-year-old Gainey—who have 11 Stanley Cup rings between them—can smell another title. The rest of the Habs have fallen in line.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, was left with the riddle of how to get inside the Montreal box. "If we don't get that first goal in Game 5," said Propp, "we could be in trouble."
Could be? Propp must still have had some recovering to do from that injury to his head.
Propp was felled by an elbow from Chelios in Game 1 and had to be carried off the ice.
Game 4 found Propp horizontal again as Robinson and Roy defended the Montreal net.