Remembering Pelle: How does Lindbergh rank among the Flyers’ goaltending greats?

Remembering Pelle is a five part series honoring the memory of former Flyers’ goaltender, Pelle Lindbergh, whose life was tragically cut short on November 11, 1985. A new article will run each day over the course of five days. This is part two of the series.

As it stands today, the Philadelphia Flyers have invested significant time and money trying to find the next generation of star puck-stopper that will lead them to Stanley Cup glory.

It’s really a short list, but one which casts a huge imprint and even bigger shadow across both ends of the ice: Bernie Parent, Pelle Lindbergh and Ron Hextall.

In the interim, the following unlucky men, burdened by unrealistic expectations of fans, media and the front office alike, have patrolled the crease to wildly varying degrees of success and notoriety: Wayne Stephenson, Pete Peeters, Bob Froese, Ken Wregget, Dominic Roussel, Tommy Soderstrom, Sean Burke, John Vanbiesbrouck, Brian Boucher, Roman Cechmanek, Robert Esche, Antero Niittymaki, Martin Biron and most recently Michael Leighton.

Despite playing for just parts of four seasons, it’s incredible that a 26-year-old Swede who hasn’t dressed for a game in 25 years still remains in the club’s Pantheon of goaltending.

It’s not hard to see once the statistics are laid out on the table in full.

First of all, during Pelle’s first full season of NHL experience, he managed to set a franchise record that still stands today. From December 22, 1982 to January 4, 1983, Lindbergh won seven consecutive starts. This was the record Sergei Bobrovsky fell short of during Sunday’s overtime loss at Washington. After returning from his broken wrist, Pelle won two more starts in February, bringing the total franchise mark to nine straight wins as a first-year goaler.

Parent had a very inconsistent first season with the Flyers (16-17-5, 2.48 GAA, 4 SO) as an expansion team paired up with Doug Favell in 1967-68, while Hextall distinguished himself immediately.

The 22-year-old from Manitoba earned NHL Rookie of the Month honors for October and November in 1986-87. He finished the season at 37-21-6 – his 37 wins rank fifth all-time in goaltender wins during a campaign – took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender and missed out due to politics on the Calder Trophy (given to Luc Robitaille of Los Angeles) as best rookie.

Pretty impressive for coming in cold without prior NHL experience.

In his third, and by far the most successful season of his career back in 1984-85, Pelle won 40 regular-season games. It still ranks as tied for third all-time with Wayne Stephenson for most single-season victories. Who’s first? Yep, Bernie Parent with 47 in 1973-74. Bernie’s also second with 44 wins in 1974-75. Pelle is also tied for 23rd place with 23 wins in 1982-83.

Despite a rocky playoff stretch in his inaugural playoff season during a three-game loss to the New York Rangers, Pelle nonetheless recorded the second-most shutouts in one postseason when he blanked opponents three times in 1985.

The Islanders were victims twice and the Nordiques once. Who still holds the all-time record? Bernie Parent again, with four in 1975. In the 1985 playoff run, which ended in a five-game loss to the Oilers, Pelle finished 12-6 with a goals-against under three per game, but was hobbled at the end by knee troubles. Nonetheless, like Parent a decade before him, his performance was widely credited with spurring the Flyers’ success.

Leighton is the only Flyers’ goalie to even come close to those feats, and in fact became the first netminder in franchise lore to blank an opponent three times in one playoff series as he did against Montreal in the Eastern Conference Finals in May.

Hextall’s best playoff season was his first, as the Flyers reached Game 7 of the 1987 Finals before losing once again to Edmonton. He finished 15-11 and posted a pair of shutouts, both in the opening round against the Rangers. Two seasons later as one of the veterans counted on for guidance, he gutted out an 8-7 mark, but upon his return in 1995 posted his most consistent playoffs, pacing a surprise run to the conference finals by going 10-5 with a 2.81 goals-against.

Parent was the bellwether for the entire NHL during his reign as back-to-back league MVP’s in the Flyers’ pair of Stanley Cup victories. He was a stellar 22-10 with six shutouts during that brief dynasty, head-and-shoulders above all other skaters for two full seasons. In a feat not yet duplicated by anyone else, Parent managed to blank both Boston and Buffalo in championship-clinching contests.

Over the balance of a career, Parent is unquestionably the top of the heap. Though finally surpassed by Hextall for most career wins, his 232 ranks second. Bernie’s 50 shutouts rank first, while Hextall goes third with 18. Lindbergh, for such a short period of time, places sixth in wins (87), and is tied for eighth in shutouts (7).

When you take into account that the whole of Parent’s career existed in a time before unchecked offense, and that Hextall’s began in a high-octane era but ended in a significantly more defensive mindset, the stats take on a different life. Perhaps another mitigating factor in the argument is the style and competitiveness each man brought to the game.

In Lindbergh’s time on Earth, the National Hockey League was churning out outrageous box scores on a nightly basis. The Oilers routinely averaged five goals per game, and it was rare for losing teams to score less than 250 over an 80-game schedule.

During the 1984-85 season, only two goalies, Tom Barrasso of Buffalo and Pat Riggin in Washington, held opponents to under three goals a game. Pelle was third hovering around 3.00.

In those years, goaltenders were not only left in for high-scoring contests, but were also praised for nights when they’d win 7-4 and make only 20-or-so saves because the game was clearly tilted against those manning the nets. Save percentages of less than 90 percent were common, and a goalie could give up 3-to-5 goals a night and still have to make four or five quality point-blank stops.

Parent and Hextall both were starters and significant contributors in eras when goalies gave up goals in the low twos or even less. Hextall’s lowest GAA was 2.17 (in 1995-96 and 1997-98) in a decade of sharply declining offense, while Parent never had a goals-against of three in a Flyers uniform and posted a career low of 1.89 in 1974.

Each of them was not immune to inconsistency. The former could look white-hot, as in the stretch early in the 1973-74 season where he recorded six shutouts in the club’s first 12 games, then take nights off when the Philly offense was humming. The latter earned high praise from none other than Wayne Gretzky following the 1987 playoffs, but was often ridiculously out of position and looked foolish while flopping after guessing wrong on chances.

Two ugly instances immediately come to mind: when Glenn Anderson lost control of a breakaway in Game 3 of the ’87 Finals and Hexy let a slow puck squirt past him as he dove to try for a poke check, and when he whiffed at a shot from center ice by Rangers defenseman Chris Tamer in April of ’99 that proved to be his last-ever appearance.

Both of the above also had a touch of the strange personality that defines the toughest position in the world’s toughest game. Parent, clearly on the laid-back side, once famously told defenseman Ed Van Impe during a stoppage of play in a playoff game that he’d want two pieces of the post-game pizza spread. Hextall, ever the lanky menace, would loudly rap his goal stick against both posts, and give lip to opponents and officials alike when he felt his crease was threatened.

Parent played in an era where technical ability was throwing yourself into the path of the puck and praying it hit your pads.  Hextall appeared at times intent on never giving up another goal for the rest of his career and spent years competing with a raging fire.

Pelle was markedly different from either man. He never got too high after a win and too low when he lost, despite the fact that it was acknowledged he cared too little for practice and study at his position. Some have said he knew from a young age he was destined for greatness, and therefore didn’t have need for an excess of emotion or preparation with his stars already aligned.

He was not technically perfect, playing in an era before rampant video instruction, but had the quickest reflexes of any goalie I’ve seen before or since. When he was in position, it was damn near impossible to score on him. That’s not to say it didn’t happen, because flukes are always lurking around the corner: one clip that takes a bit of digging to find saw Pelle duck when a fluttering puck shot from the right boards by Doug Shedden one night in Pittsburgh near Christmas 1984 sailed over his head – but settled in the net just below the crossbar.

When he failed to keep up with the play, his ability to leap up from a prone position, or perfectly time a slide or stacking of the pads was impeccable. It happened at least once a game in the marathon pace NHL games adopted in the middle 1980s and this, as I recall, was the genesis for the “Pelle” chant – his penchant for making saves when it appeared a goal was imminent.

It is the same thing for which Bernie was adored, but the difference in play during the decade in between was like horse-and-cart on dirt roads compared to Lamborghinis on the Autobahn.

With the exception of examples from his downtrodden sophomore season, it didn’t seem like Pelle ever gave up a bad goal when he was on, because his consistency was probably his best attribute, and both Bernie and Pelle spoke of needing to be consistent in order to survive in the NHL of that era.

So where exactly does Number 31 rank? It’s taken a lot of exposition to get to this point, but I’d safely say third place, with Bernie first and Ron Hextall second. Brevity clearly works against him.  If Pelle had lived, all indications were he had a prime chance to supplant his idol atop the list, but third out of only three ain’t bad.

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  • Ronnie

    I would argue that Hextall also only had one truly great season (his rookie year), a very good one in 1995-96 and was otherwise very ordinary as well as rather injury prone.

    Pete Peeters (first time around) deserves to be in the discussion somewhere. If you go ONLY by stats alone, Cechmanek and Froese had a lot of (regular season) success in their own right with the Flyers.

    • Bob H

      @Ronnie – good catches, man. Peeters, I think deserves mention but not in the Pantheon. I mean, he has the Flyers’ record for consecutive starts without a loss from the start of the season, but he couldn’t match that in his last 2 seasons with Philly, and it was basically downhill for him after the upward spike and Vezina Trophy with Boston in 1983.

      I’m not going on stats alone, and that’s why Cechmanek and Froese are left out. Bernie went to three Cup Finals, Hextall two and Pelle one so the inclusion of long postseason runs has a lot to do with it. I agree with you for the most part about Hexy’s up-and-down career, but in terms of his longevity with the team, that’s why he’s up there. Not a lot of Flyer goaltenders have lasted more than 5 years.

  • Ronnie

    I would argue that Hextall also only had one truly great season (his rookie year), a very good one in 1995-96 and was otherwise very ordinary as well as rather injury prone.

    Pete Peeters (first time around) deserves to be in the discussion somewhere. If you go ONLY by stats alone, Cechmanek and Froese had a lot of (regular season) success in their own right with the Flyers.

    • Bob H

      @Ronnie – good catches, man. Peeters, I think deserves mention but not in the Pantheon. I mean, he has the Flyers’ record for consecutive starts without a loss from the start of the season, but he couldn’t match that in his last 2 seasons with Philly, and it was basically downhill for him after the upward spike and Vezina Trophy with Boston in 1983.

      I’m not going on stats alone, and that’s why Cechmanek and Froese are left out. Bernie went to three Cup Finals, Hextall two and Pelle one so the inclusion of long postseason runs has a lot to do with it. I agree with you for the most part about Hexy’s up-and-down career, but in terms of his longevity with the team, that’s why he’s up there. Not a lot of Flyer goaltenders have lasted more than 5 years.