When Philadelphia Flyers coach Terry Murray started neophyte
goaltender Garth Snow in the team's first game of the Stanley
Cup playoffs last month, he noted that even the Flyers' Hall of
Fame netminder of the 1960s and '70s, Bernie Parent, had to make
his first postseason start sometime. This is true. In
Philadelphia's 5-4 loss on Sunday to the New York Rangers, it is
unlikely that Parent would have played any better than
Snow--considering Parent is now 52.
If the Flyers defeat the Rangers in the Eastern Conference
finals, which were tied 1-1 at week's end, and go on to win the
Stanley Cup, they will probably do so despite their goaltending.
Not that the tandem of Snow and Ron Hextall is Laurel and Hardy,
but the other three goalies still playing--Mike Richter of the
Rangers, Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche and Mike Vernon
of the Detroit Red Wings--have won Cups and are better than
either goaltender in Philadelphia's tandem.
The 27-year-old Snow, in his second full season, is a late
bloomer who had never started four NHL games in a row before
Philly's opening-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins,
in which he started all five games. The energetic but erratic
Hextall, 33, has put up good numbers during his 11-year career,
but he has a tendency to allow soft goals. Moreover, he finished
the regular season with horrendous performances against the
Rangers and the New Jersey Devils.
Philadelphia is flouting the most sacred tenet of playoff hockey
by trying to finesse a Stanley Cup without a clear-cut No. 1
goaltender, the equivalent of a football team's trying to win
the Super Bowl without a stud quarterback. NHL clubs have
accomplished the feat, most recently in 1972 when the Boston
Bruins alternated Gerry Cheevers and Ed Johnston, but it's a
tough way to go.
Murray declared before the series against New York that he would
play the goalie who was on a roll. He wasn't counting on Snow's
being toasted. In Philly's 3-1 victory over the Rangers in the
opener last Friday, the Flyers gave Snow a two-goal margin for
error in the first five minutes and didn't allow a breakaway or
even an odd-man rush. They were far less vigilant on Sunday,
though New York didn't exactly bombard Snow when it scored on
three of its first four and five of its first 10 shots. There
were some bad breaks for Philadelphia--for example, a quirky
bounce off the glass in the CoreStates Center allowed Wayne
Gretzky to score on a backhander from the slot--but at least two
of the five goals were as soft as oatmeal. The most deflating
was Gretzky's third, a low drive that ticked off Snow's glove
two minutes after Philly had scrambled back to tie the game 3-3.
Gretzky's 10th playoff hat trick should have moved the question
of Snow's shakiness from the preponderance-of-evidence category
to beyond-a-reasonable-doubt, but Murray's patience, one of his
strengths as a coach, turned into a weakness. Only after Mark
Messier scored on a two-on-one with 6:15 left in the second
period to put New York ahead 5-3 did Murray look down the bench
to Hextall, who, except for having won the fifth and final game
in the Flyers' second-round series against the Buffalo Sabres,
had been Philadelphia's $2.2 million doorman in the playoffs.
When asked about Snow in the postgame press conference, Rangers
coach Colin Campbell smiled and waved off the question.
Meanwhile the Flyers continued to swear by their goalies, never
at them. "I feel good about our goaltending," captain Eric
Lindros said. "I'm not down at all."
Neither was Philadelphia general manager Bob Clarke. Before the
March 18 trading deadline, Clarke had considered acquiring Felix
Potvin from the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the cost--the package
would have had to include Mikael Renberg, who usually plays
right wing with Lindros on the Legion of Doom line--had seemed
exorbitant for a seemingly meager upgrade in goal. Clarke had
been loath to fiddle with a splendid young nucleus that should
make Philadelphia a Stanley Cup contender for years to come and
had decided to take a chance with Hextall, who has a no-trade
clause in a deal that runs for two more seasons, and with Snow,
a $345,000 bargain who is particularly compatible with Hextall.
Murray was going to have to sort them out, which he seemed to be
doing brilliantly until Sunday, when Snow suddenly melted under
the glare of the red light.
Only a week earlier Murray had artfully navigated around a
goaltender controversy that flared up over, of all things, a
verb. After using Hextall in Game 5 against Buffalo (Hextall's
first start in 28 days), Murray explained the switch by saying
that Snow had suffered a "loss of focus" in Game 4 of the
Sabres' series, a 5-4 overtime defeat, and "I don't want to lose
him, he's going to be a good goalie." Snow responded that he
thought he already was a good goalie. There are often tense
moments in the playoffs, but the Flyers were having a moment
over tenses. The miniscandal--call it Conjugate--engrossed
sportswriters and grammarians in Philadelphia for almost a week,
though Murray and Snow had hashed out the matter at a meeting
the following day. "Snowy told me he just wished I'd said that
he'd played brutal [in Game 4 against Buffalo]," Murray says.
"He didn't. I just thought I saw a goalie who was a little
However, having inadvertently ignited a brushfire, Murray was
not above letting it turn into a full-fledged smoke screen.
Observers around the NHL had several questions about Philly as
it entered the postseason--most notably whether Lindros, in his
fifth year, was ready to take the Flyers to the top--but in
Philadelphia the talk was all-goalies all-the-time. Even after
telling his netminders before practice last Thursday that Snow
would start Game 1 against the Rangers, Murray swore them to
secrecy. Hextall looked buoyant in the locker room after
practice, and Snow seemed subdued. Snow insists it was
unintentional, but his was at least as good an acting job as the
dive New York tough guy Shane Churla took to draw a chintzy
interference penalty against Philly's John LeClair in Game 1.
The truth is, which goalie is in net hardly matters. Hextall is
on his way down and Snow is on his way up, and they meet
somewhere in the middle of the pack of NHL goaltenders. "You
wonder how many series they expect to win," said one Eastern
Conference general manager late in the regular season, "when the
other team is going to have a goaltender who is better than
Snow and Hextall, in fact, are almost one goalie. They are both
big (Snow is 6'3" and 200 pounds, Hextall 6'3" and 192) and
combative. They play well when they hold their ground and let
pucks hit them, and they fare poorly when they take themselves
out of position with their aggressiveness. Hextall handles his
stick better and helps the penalty-killing unit by clearing
pucks from the zone, but Snow makes fewer egregious mistakes.
The only major difference between them, Murray observed during
his merry week of guess-the-goalie, is that Snow fights a little
more, "but only because he's younger." Indeed, Snow slugged it
out with Buffalo netminder Steve Shields in Game 1 of their
series, thereby getting the hat trick for having fought all
three Sabres goalies in the past two years.
There was one theory that Shields got involved in that set-to
simply to see if it was really Snow under all that equipment.
For the past month Snow's shoulder pads have became the most
hotly discussed undergarments since Madonna's. Not that goalies
don't look for an edge--the Flyers mumble that Manhattan studio
apartments are smaller pads than the ones Richter straps on his
legs--but Snow looks as if he has the Poconos on his
collarbones. An NHL official examined Snow's Heaton shoulder
pads early in the Buffalo series and found the purported falsies
just fine. (There are no specific regulations regarding the size
of shoulder pads in the NHL rule book.) "Look, I know what the
shoulder pads do," says Snow. "As a goalie, if you believe
you're taking up most of the net, it means you have to move
less. You rely less on quickness and more on position."
But then, Snow is remarkably quick, at least verbally. When
Sabres coach Ted Nolan said Snow looked as if he were wearing
two-by-fours under his jersey, Snow said the bulges actually
were shingles he had gotten from Snow's Supplies, his father
Don's roofing and windows firm in Foxboro, Mass. "Try to get
that in the article," Snow said. "Maybe it'll be good for
Snow knows all about giving people the business--he's the
Flyers' locker room wit. After the U.S. beat Canada last
September in hockey's World Cup, he told Clarke, a key
international player for Canada in the 1970s, "Well, Clarkie, at
least [your country] still has curling." When mad cow disease
broke out in Britain last year, the shafts of some Flyers sticks
started mysteriously turning up with bovine spots, and while all
evidence pointed to Snow, he steadfastly denied the allegations.
Hextall contends that the cockroach found doing the dead man's
crawl in his coffee earlier this season was the work of Snow,
who concedes, "I'm not saying I did that, but I think I know the
guy who did. I'm researching that one right now." He pauses and
then adds, "Just tell people I didn't murder the cockroach. You
know, animal rights."
The goalies' freewheeling relationship has allowed Murray his
little intrigues and kept the locker room from splintering into
Hextall and Snow camps. Hextall gave Snow a nickname, Sea Bass,
after the character in Dumb and Dumber. Snow gave Hextall a
nasty insect. The pair is as rare as the abominable snowmen
painted on Snow's mask: goalies who are close friends.
But if Philadelphia is going to win its first Stanley Cup since
the Broad Street Bullies prevailed in 1975, odds are that
Hextall or Snow will have to raise his play from acceptable to
something more, to, in the language of the craft, stand on his
head and steal a game. Snow demurs. "I don't think any player
has ever won a game by himself," he says. "This is still a team
sport. It's not golf. Goalies have to make big saves at the
right time. Maybe one player plays a little above his head to
help the team win, but I wouldn't say 'steal a game.'"
Hextall was superb in relief in Game 2, stopping Esa Tikkanen 75
seconds after entering the match and making 11 more saves. His
performance earned him the transferrable title of hot Flyers
goalie, and Murray announced that Hextall would start in New
York in Game 3. Hextall and Philadelphia swept the Rangers in
the second round in 1995, but fans in Madison Square Garden
prefer to recall the 16 goals Hextall yielded in three playoff
games the previous spring, when he was with the New York
Islanders. Hextall shrugs his shoulders. The only thing that
matters, he insists, is the next shot.
So even though the team with the best goaltending often wins the
Stanley Cup, the Flyers are optimistic that their 20 players can
beat your 20. Could be. With its blot-out-the-sun size, four
lines and Lindros, Philadelphia has a chance--barring any more
outright net disasters, of course. Party on, Ron. You, too,
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER The often erratic Hextall was sharp in relief in Game 2 against New York, but Philly still fell 5-4. [Ron Hextall attempting to block shot in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER The Rangers brought Snow to his knees during Game 2, beating him five times on their first 10 shots. [Garth Snow attempting to block shot in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Snow shrugged off the controversy over his king-sized shoulder pads. [Garth Snow in uniform]