OVER AND OUT?
Pale faced and glassy eyed, Flyers captain Eric Lindros walked
away from his final postgame interview session of 1998 in
mid-sentence, the camera lights burning brightly on his back as
he strode out of the locker room. Last Friday, Philadelphia was
again knocked out of the playoffs, this time in a stunning five
games by the Sabres, and Lindros again had little to say. "Right
now we're in shock," he said between long pauses and a few
wayward glances. "It wasn't supposed to go like this."
Later, when the 25-year-old Lindros met up with family, friends
and teammates at a Philadelphia restaurant, he was more vocal.
The group talked well into the night about the Flyers and their
tumultuous season, and the usually taciturn Lindros kept yakking
even as members of his party excused themselves and went to bed.
There was, after all, a lot to discuss. This was the worst
season of Lindros's career and could turn out to have been his
last in Philadelphia. Lindros had his second-lowest point total
(30 goals and 41 assists), and for the fifth time in six seasons
he missed significant time because of injury. He was also
missing in action when it counted most: Against Buffalo, a year
after playing poorly in last spring's sweep by the Red Wings in
the Cup finals, he had one goal and two assists in the series
and just one shot in the final two games. In the clincher, a 3-2
overtime loss at the CoreStates Center, he didn't even get
credit for a hit.
Just as disturbing is Lindros's growing reputation as a
coach-killing star who lacks the leadership skills needed to
raise the play of his teammates--the ultimate sign of greatness.
Lindros captained the Canadian Olympic team, which was
considered a bitter disappointment after it failed to get a
medal in Nagano. In his six seasons with the Flyers,
Philadelphia has never won a game in which it faced elimination
and never won a series in which it lost the opener.
The Flyers' shortcomings weren't all Lindros's fault--there were
more than a few front-office blunders (curious free-agent
signings and trades, a late-season coaching change) that helped
lead to Philly's early exit. But the Sabres, faced with their
own organizational turmoil heading into this season, united and
played inspired, while the Flyers and their captain froze.
Before Game 2, Flyers coach Roger Neilson said, "Eric knows that
if we win the Stanley Cup, he'll get the bulk of the credit, and
if we lose in the first round, he'll get the bulk of the blame.
It's tough on a kid to feel that much pressure. All superstars
have to learn how to deal with that."
Eric's father and agent, Carl, believes that "Eric wants to make
it work in Philadelphia." But it won't be surprising if the
Flyers trade Lindros: Published reports during the season said
Philadelphia may look to deal Lindros to the Maple Leafs for
forward Mats Sundin or to the Coyotes for left wing Keith
Tkachuk. A day before the Flyers were eliminated, general
manager Bob Clarke was talking about altering the makeup of
Philly's roster from the brawniest and most expensive in the
league to one that is smaller, quicker and offers a better
return on the dollar. Clarke's first order of business should be
to deal--or deal with--Lindros.
When the NHL instituted a midseason crackdown on obstruction
fouls, skeptics assumed it would be a short-lived crusade. Once
the close-checking playoffs began, we were sure all the hooking
and holding, the grabbing and gouging would return, and the
referees would simply skate away. "That's what happened whenever
they tried to crack down in the past," says Coyotes winger Mike
Gartner. "This time they're serious."
To the league's credit it has continued to call obstruction
closely. The first 45 games of the playoffs had an average of
2.9 obstruction-related penalties, nearly three times as many as
in last year's postseason. The calls contributed to a 12%
increase in the number of power plays and also forced defensemen
to keep their hands to themselves and give players room to move
up-ice and create offense. "It used to be when a guy got a step,
you could grab him," says Red Wings defenseman Larry Murphy.
"You can't do that now. It makes things harder for defensemen,
but it's better for the game."
We agree. The biggest drawback has been that players have been
taking advantage of suddenly sensitive referees by diving to
draw penalties. The Sabres did some infuriating faking while
beating the Flyers, including wing Matthew Barnaby, a notorious
actor, who by playing all-but-dead drew a high-sticking call in
overtime of Game 5 that led to Buffalo's series-winning goal.
There also was considerable flopping in the Bruins-Capitals
series, which Washington won in six. "Guys are falling down as
soon as they get touched," says Sharks general manager Dean
Lombardi. "You hate it when penalties are called for that, but
it's been a tough adjustment for the refs."
That the NHL is making such adjustments during the playoffs
demonstrates how shortsighted the league was to implement the
crackdown at midyear instead of waiting for next season. But at
least the change is headed in the right direction--and it seems
to be here to stay.
E-mail your NHL playoff questions to staff writer Kostya Kennedy
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA LOW FLYER Buffalo's knockout of Philly may have been the beginning of the end for Lindros. [Eric Lindros in game]
THIS DATE IN PLAYOFF HISTORY
MAY 11, 1972, BRUINS VS. RANGERS
Bobby Orr put on a dazzling exhibition as Boston won its second
Stanley Cup in three years by shutting out New York 3-0 in Game
6. Orr scored the first goal, set up the second and nearly
single-handedly killed a five-on-three second-period power play
by ragging the puck as the Rangers hopelessly pursued him. Said
Bruins forward Derek Sanderson, "Bobby controlled the puck for
40 minutes and let the other 35 players in the game use it for
the other 20."