Fantastic Finish, Sputtering Start: The 1995 Flyers

Thanks to Shoebox Legends

This beloved team defied expectations, growing stronger as the season went on and eventually landed two wins shy of the Stanley Cup Finals.

It consistently defied expectations and exceeded dreams, winning an Atlantic Division title, two playoff rounds including an unthinkable second-round sweep of the defending champions, and restored faith in a proud franchise.

Despite the glory of remembrance, it wasn’t all champagne and roses and hope from the start.

It also started out the season 3-7-1, were shut out in back-to-back games including giving a former expansion club its first-ever shutout victory, failed to produce much offense during a killer opening stretch of games, and tested the patience of those patient fans desperate for a winner after waiting 3 1/2 months for the game to return.

It’s easy to get lost in the haze of pure emotion when you’re beyond ecstatic that the league and players finally put aside their differences and are getting back to hockey.

It’s easier still to romanticize certain aspects of the present, and the past, when inevitable comparisons are called for.

Since there was only one other previous instance of labor issues causing a dent in the NHL’s master schedule, that of 18 years ago, it’s natural to try and search for ways to predict the future by mining the events of the past. For Philadelphia Flyers fans, it’s an especially difficult test for this next week, given that the full progression of the lockout-shortened 1995 season proved to be the genesis of a Second Renaissance of dominant hockey.

When the lights went up in the Spectrum on Saturday, January 20, the Flyers, under new head coach Terry Murray, were very much a struggling team hoping that key transactions would reverse five years of postseason avoidance.

In goal, Dominic Roussel — who never proved himself worthy of a steady starting job in the previous two seasons. And Ron Hextall, who was swapped for plucky Tommy Soderstrom in a deal which clearly robbed the Islanders blind. Hextall was several months removed from shouldering a ton of blame for New York’s awful four-game opening-round loss to the Rangers, and it remained to be seen if he could put together a solid Second Act in Philadelphia after three subpar years here before he was packaged off to Quebec in 1992.

Their defensive corps featured a gangly rookie out of Providence College (Chris Therien), an acknowledged clubhouse lawyer whose stamina was being tested as his time with the team was running out (Garry Galley), an underwhelming former Canadiens blueliner (Kevin Haller), a Russian who had not yet earned his famous nickname (Dmitri Yushkevich), plus Rob Zettler, Ryan McGill ad Stew Malgunas.

The forward lines consisted of the Big Six of Eric Lindros, Mark Recchi, Brent Fedyk Mikael Renberg, Kevin Dineen and Rod Brind’Amour — plus little else. Rob DiMaio, Mark Lamb and Dave Brown, to be precise. New acquisition Shjon Podein (from Edmonton) was a solid but total bottom-six forward, and it remained to be seen what Craig MacTavish could provide in terms of points aside from his veteran leadership which included four Stanley Cups. And Josef Beranek was a huge question mark after going 28 games without a goal and not exactly taking to the “Flyer” way of performing.

Oh yeah, and Lindros, their 21-year-old behemoth, was fitted for the first time with a certain important letter which comes early in the alphabet. Whether or not he deserved the honor, it was his to wear and his burden to bear as the new face of the franchise. Would he shrink with the extra responsibilities, or show flashes of brilliance which led to a 97-point year in 93-94?

It was safe to say they failed their first test: seven games in the first 10 days.

Aside from some bad luck in a 3-1 season-opening loss at home against Quebec, when Owen Nolan clearly kicked in the go-ahead goal in the third period, the Flyers were totally outclassed (31-19 shot margin) in a 4-1 loss at Boston the next afternoon, then fell behind 4-1 on Long Island 48 hours later before waking up too late in a one-goal loss.

They needed two goals in a 1:57 span in the final five minutes of regulation to get past Hartford back on home ice, then was the beneficiary of Cam Neely — who scored with the goaltender pulled and 46 seconds on the clock — missing a wide-open net with seconds to go in a harrowing 2-1 defeat of Boston.

One day later, on Super Bowl Sunday in Montreal, Lindros came down with a sudden illness and MacTavish’s faceoff acumen helped grind out a 2-2 tie in which the Orange and Black were outshot 32-15. The last player to go helmetless wryly noted “The biggest decision Eric had to make today was which end of his body to put on the toilet.”

Back in Quebec City, a 2-1 first-period lead exploded into a 5-2 loss thanks to a goal and three assists from Joe Sakic, and the skid reached 2-5-1 two days later at the Spectrum when Galley’s misplay with his glove during a scramble around Roussel led to Ray Ferraro’s OT goal that wiped out a Beranek hat trick in a 5-4 Islanders victory. Sixth place, with only the usual weak Washington Capitals start preventing the Flyers from hitting bottom in the Atlantic Division.

The dire situation even prompted the laconic Murray to curse,” Everything we’ve been doing well the past few games we didn’t do tonight. I don’t know what the Hell is going on. Awful. Awful.”

There was a brief respite in a Saturday matinee against the Buffalo Sabres, when Lindros’ prayer at the end of the second period handcuffed Grant Fuhr and gave the hosts a 4-1 edge that was parlayed into a two-goal victory.

But then, bottom.

February 6 in Ottawa, against a Senators team that had won a combined 24 games to that point in two-plus seasons and had gone 0-6-2 to start this one, figured to be a total panacea.

What it turned out to be was a career-rejuvenating performance from Don Beaupre, who went into the modern Sens record book by recording the franchise’s first whitewash. He stopped a Recchi penalty shot, one of 34 saves on the night.

And then Bob Clarke pulled the trigger on a deal with the equally-struggling but deep Habs, shipping Recchi to La Belle Province for the under-utilized John LeClair, steady defenseman Eric Desjardins and spare forward Gilbert Dionne — who figured to light a fire under disappointing prospect Patrik Juhlin.

And they all lived happily ever after, the Legion of Doom Era fully underway.

Wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.

Problem was, the deal was not consummated until after midnight on February 9, and despite getting all three players to Philadelphia in time for its next home game later that night, the strain of the news and travel threatened to undo the all the good that was expected.

Florida scored three times in a 6 1/2-minute span through the middle of the first period, then rolled out the hospital beds against an anemic host attack. In a 3-0 defeat, John Vanbiesbrouck had an easy 26-save shutout victory, the first time the Flyers had been blanked in consecutive games since October of 1973.

An embarrassment in front of the home fans, 16,229 strong. An embarrassment on national television and hardly a vote of confidence for Clarke’s business acumen. A total of 22 goals scored in 11 games, a severe drop-off from the teams that scored 319 two years back and 294 the season prior.

But then it all turned around in a game against the New Jersey Devils at the Meadowlands, and the magical ride we know by heart commenced.

A word of caution to the legions of the disappointed turned disciples once again: Patience. There’s too much temptation to read too much into every little thing that happens behind the scenes and on the ice when there’s only 48 games and key points on the line every night.

Sit back and enjoy the ride. One way or another, you’ll be rewarded for your loyalty. Even if Claude Giroux isn’t captain, Ilya Bryzgalov isn’t a comedy routine in waiting, and even if the Flyers don’t put together a long playoff run, there will be plenty of moments, piling one on top of the other, which will make 2013′s experience hockey worthwhile.

Just don’t start out with the belief that this year’s team is a Stanley Cup contender.