Nursing the heartbreak of a Stanley-Cup caliber Flyers season that came to a screeching halt with a stupefying early playoff exit is a rare and beautiful thing.
Although the Flyers have prided themselves on not shitting the bed in the postseason after being near the top of the NHL standings, it has been known to occur every once in a blue moon. Like in the early 1980′s.
Tucked in between the Year of the Streak that ended in a loss to the Islanders in the Finals and the Mike Keenan-led surprise 1985 Cup finalists, was four deeply disappointing years that saw a rag-tag bunch of Broad Street Bullies and untested youth only win a single playoff round.
The most disappointing season came right in the middle of that run, back in 1982-83. I refer to it as a “Lost Season” because it happened just before I became aware of, well…everything…in my life, and came during what was the first Black Hole of Flyers history, of which very little is known precisely because of those inexplicable playoff failures that came on the heels of a veritable dynasty.
After cruising to a 49-23-8 record in the regular season, complete with a Patrick Division title, the second-best record in the NHL, and the knowledge it might have finally supplanted the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Islanders after a half-decade chase, it simply exploded within the space of five days.
It ended with only three extra games in the Patrick Division Semifinals — defeats of 5-3 and 4-3 at the Spectrum to start, and the last one a 9-3 embarrassment at Madison Square Garden to the fourth-place, .500 Rangers which saw New York gleefully pour on the revenge when the outcome was already assured in their favor.
Dubbed “The Smurfs” in a memorable instance of foot-in-mouth disease from Flyers head coach Bob McCammon, the Rangers used their European talent and a free-flowing game plan from revered bench boss Herb Brooks to completely outclass the older, slower-to-adapt Flyers.
The club’s sartorial choices at the outset of the year now draw equal parts wonder and scorn, but at the time it was a truly radical move. Pants, not shorts, were worn in the name of aerodynamics. It was also the debut of the current shades of Flyer colors and its modernized logo which still exists to this day. Here’s what it looked like in game action:
For the record, that’s Paul Holmgren (#17, standing) and Glen Cochrane (#29, kneeling) battling what looks like a young Dave Hunter. Without the Oilers number, it’s impossible to tell.
In any case, Bobby Clarke, now in his 13th season, was looking to rebound from an injury-plagued 81-82 campaign, and after dumping disappointing goalie Pete Peeters on the Bruins, the Flyers were hooking their hopes on a career back-up in Rick St. Croix and a young non-North American rookie goaltender named Pelle Lindbergh (sound familiar, eh?).
Clarke had not yet regained the captaincy that he gave up when he was named a playing assistant coach in 1979 — that mantle was assumed by the equally-legendary Bill Barber.
The Bullies were down to those two. Reggie Leach had been released late the previous season, and Jim Watson’s career was over after back problems led to spinal fusion surgery. Holmgren didn’t quite count because he was not on the Cup winning teams, but he, Cochrane, Behn Wilson and several call-ups retained the tough Bullies spirit.
A defensive overhaul netted Philly perhaps its best defenseman in club history in Mark Howe through a three-team trade with Hartford and Edmonton. His calm, puck-moving presence was sorely needed since stay-at-home defender Brad Marsh was the only solid player on the back line.
Soon-to-be Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler signed on for another season, and he was needed to guide a young crop of talent such as Brian Propp, Tim Kerr, Ray Allison, Ron Flockhart, Ilkka Sinisalo, Lindsay Carson, Paul Evans and Brad McCrimmon.
The pay-off didn’t come until the middle of the season. In an incredible burst of dominance, from December 12 to February 10, the Flyers ripped off a 21-2-3 record which took them from a tug-of-war with the Islanders to within three points of first-overall Boston.
Among the highlights during those tw0 months of superb hockey: Six straight road wins around the holidays, dumping New Jersey, Washington, Detroit, Calgary, St. Louis and Chicago in succession. That prompted Sittler to quip “I’ve never won six games in a row in my life.” It was the opener of a 10-game win streak that began a 16-1-1 run from December 22 to January 27.
Bob Froese, who was recalled from Maine as an antidote to an ineffective St. Croix during this period, fired off a 1-0 victory at Uniondale on January 23, part of his 17-4-2 rookie campaign. Not to be outdone, Lindbergh eventually went 13 straight starts without a loss, a franchise record which still stands today and one that even Sergei Bobrovsky couldn’t match last year.
All told, the Flyers beat the Isles four times out of seven with one tie and left them 10 points back in the Patrick. They topped the Oilers two of three times, split three games with Norris winner Chicago, and swept Calgary, Quebec, Detroit, Winnipeg, St. Louis and finished unbeaten against Toronto.
There were cracks in the armor, though. An early season loss in Pittsburgh to what would be a second-to-last Penguins squad saw Philly come up with 52 shots and only two goals. Another road game at the Igloo in early December saw a rare for the decade double shutout. They lost twice at third-worst New Jersey, four times out of seven to the Capitals, three out of seven to the Rangers, and once at league-worst Hartford.
Barber suffered a fractured jaw, and Lindbergh missed time with a broken wrist suffered in an exhibition against the Soviets. Kerr, coming off two strong 20-plus-goal seasons, played in just 24 games due to ligament damage and a broken leg.
In a week’s time in mid-March, the club lost 8-2 at New York and 9-2 on Long Island, then fumbled away a 6-5 decision at the Meadowlands a week after that. From a 2-0 home victory against the Islanders on February 27 — a win which put McCammon’s club alone atop the NHL with a 41-15-7 mark and 89 points — the Flyers crumbled to an 8-8-1 finish.
Clarke’s enging hummed all season long. He did not miss a game, and probably didn’t miss a beat on any particular shift. He notched 23 goals and 85 points (his best point total since 1977-78), and was rewarded for his efforts with the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward.
Sittler was reborn, finishing with a team-best 43 goals and 83 points. Propp’s fourth season was a revelation at 40 goals and 82 points, while Howe turned in a miracle year with 20 goals, 67 points and an amazing plus-47. Barber, Flockhart, Sinisalo and Allison each posted 20-goal seasons.
Overall, the team finished sixth in the NHL with 326 goals, and ranked third in goals allowed at 240. Froese boasted four whitewashes and Lindbergh notched three, and their combined prowess ranked second only to Peeters’ eight shutouts with Boston.
The avalanche of statistics and honors didn’t matter. What did was an ugly three-game loss to the hated Rangers.
In 1983, though, the Rangers couldn’t keep up with the Flyers, Islanders, or resurgent Washington Capitals — who earned the first playoff berth in franchise history. Brooks could only lead his club to a fourth-place finish, with an even 35-35-10 mark.
Still, he had seven regular-season meetings with the Flyers to draw from, and three of those were victories.
Game 1 opened up with two goaltending wild cards: New York’s Eddie Mio and Philly’s Lindbergh. They figured to be tested because both teams scored over 300 times in the regular season.
Turns out, Lindbergh was the one under fire. It was 3-0 before the end of the first period, and 5-1 for the Rags after two. Dave Poulin (hey!) scored his first career playoff goal and Barber added another in the third period but it was too little, too late.
So, on to Game 3. The Flyers won two of three at Madison Square Garden during the year (one by shutout), and would have two chances to dig out of their series hole and get it to a deciding Game 5 back in Philadelphia.
So much for that.
It was ugly. Not modern art ugly, but “beaten up by every branch of the ugly tree while falling to the ground ugly.”
You wouldn’t get an argument from me if you called this the worst playoff loss in Flyers history, given the circumstances. The Flyers losing this year in four straight to the Bruins doesn’t even qualify, because our boys actually won one playoff round before the whole operation went on the fritz.
Clarke was quoted in Full Spectrum as saying after that Game 3 loss “It was unbelievable…nobody played worth a damn…”
Changes were on the horizon. Long-time GM Keith Allen was asked to step aside, and McCammon, incredibly, was asked to fill the vacancy. Ed Snider took another step back from the club and named his son, Jay, team president.
Flockhart was gone early in the following regular season, dangled as bait to Pittsburgh for one of the Sutter twins. Lindbergh and Froese became the full-time goaltending tandem. The pants would disappear, per NHL rules.
If you’re looking for a silver lining in any parallels between 82-83 and 10-11, there’s none forthcoming. The 83-84 season was frought with more drama, and it took a total franchise overhaul from the top down for the Flyers to return to the upper echelons two years later.
We can only hope this upcoming season yields better results.