“Trees” and the Motown Blitz: 25 years later

One thing astute observers could say about the successful Alumni Game which took place two days before the 2012 Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park, was that former Flyers goaltender Mark Laforest put together his finest performance while wearing the Orange and Black.

He came back to the Quaker City for the first time since absorbing an 8-2 loss while playing for the Ottawa Senators in March of 1994, worked the majority of minutes in between Bernie Parent and Neil Little, and posted a 3-1 victory over the New York Rangers’ old-timers.

Now 52 years old, Laforest’s first spin with the franchise lasted just 38 games from October of 1987 until March of 1989. The coolest thing about him was that he had a pretty sweet goalie mask, a florid tribute to his nickname, “Trees,” and one of the first artistic uses of that equipment in the early days of creative design. If you looked hard enough, you’d swear the branches produced more logo buds as Spring approached.

Even by 1980′s backup goaltender standards, there was nothing you could call heroic in Laforest’s win-loss numbers, goals-against average or save percentage. But on the night of February 23, 1988 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, the former Red Wing draft pick provided his most heroic moments as an NHL goaltender in helping the Philadelphia Flyers roll to one of the most unlikely and unexpected wins in club history.

In the back end of a home-and-home series, after a 5-3 Flyers win two afternoons prior at the Spectrum, Ron Hextall played through the beginnings of a nasty cold. By game time on that Tuesday, the 23-year-old starter was so wracked with what is now called “flu-like symptoms,” that he vomited in the locker room, so Laforest was called to the crease for the drop of the puck.

Yet Hextall somehow convinced head coach Mike Keenan that he was ready to enter the game, so in he went only 45 seconds after the drop of the puck. Three goals later — from Brent Ashton, Petr Klima and veteran defensive defenseman Harold Snepsts — on 13 shots in the first period, Hextall was pulled for good.

“I just couldn’t stay in the game, because I had nothing left,” Hextall told Ray Parrillo of the Inquirer. “I couldn’t hold down my pre-game meal and I had no fluids left. I was just too weak. I didn’t even see what happened because I just laid on the table in the clubhouse the whole time.”

Here’s where things get weird.

Laforest was bombed for two more scores in the second period and the Wings held a comfortable 5-1 lead with just under 28 minutes left in regulation, only to see Mark Howe, Craig Berube and Murray Craven set a then-franchise record for fastest three goals in one period by scoring in a 90-second span on Glen Hanlon. A Steve Yzerman tally inside of five minutes left in the second capped the scoring and it was 6-4 after 40 minutes of play.

Flash back to December 3, 1985.

Laforest, then 24 years old but playing well enough on a competitive Adirondack Red Wings club in the American Hockey League, gets called up to the parent club, which was then suffering through the early stages of their worst season in franchise history. His assignment, to prop up a team that was 6-13-4 and which lost 10-1 to Montreal two nights earlier, against the Philadelphia Flyers who sported the best record in the NHL at 19-5-0.

When asked for a scouting report, Philly backup Darren Jensen, who’d faced Laforest while tending goal for the Hershey Bears quipped “He’s a sieve; just shoot.” And shoot they did, 36 times in all. The only one Laforest let up was a long-distance drive from Dave Poulin in the first period. He claimed a 4-1 victory, outdueling Vezina Trophy runner-up Bob Froese, but finished 3-21-0 in his remaining 27 appearances as a rookie in 1985-86.

Flash forward to December 11, 1987.

Laforest’s first visit back to Detroit since the Flyers picked him up as second banana to the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy and Vezina winner Hextall, was a 3-3 tie which extended their unbeaten streak to seven games. He stopped 24 shots, but allowed the Wings to tie the game with 4 1/2 minutes left in regulation on a score by, of all people, enforcer Bob Probert.

Flash forward almost 2 1/2 months later, it looked like “Trees” was destined for mop-up duty in a Motown shootout, but improbably, the tide began to turn when Doug Crossman ripped one past Hanlon with 2:22 played in the third, and the Wings were only ahead 6-5. Just over two minutes later, it looked like the visitors were given a gift as Adam Oates was given a double-minor for high sticking.

That’s when Laforest truly earned his stripes as a professional and produced an indelible moment for anyone who watched the game live or saw the highlights in the afterglow.

Using moderate forechecking pressure, Detroit’s Shawn Burr stripped the puck away from a Flyers defenseman and roared in alone from center ice on a short-handed breakaway. He made several stick moves while cruising down the middle of the ice, and had Laforest off balance when he shot, but his nemesis deflected the chance high while falling backwards in the crease.

That set off a chain of events which led to several franchise records which still stand 25 years later.

J.J. Daigneault’s screen shot from the point got past Hanlon on the front end of the power play and it was 6-6 at the 6:10 mark. Howe then used another of his trademark wristers to beat an impassive Hanlon to close out the back end of the advantage and give the Flyers their first lead of the game 86 seconds later.

Stunned, the Red Wings skated with the puck as if they had no clue what to do beyond the neutral zone. When Ron Sutter flipped one home with 9:25 played, it was 8-6, and on Channel 57, Gene Hart could barely contain himself as he screamed to partner Bobby Taylor and the entire Delaware Valley “SCORE….SCORE…am I excited?”

On the ensuing shift, Peter Zezel and Scott Mellanby kept puck possession deep inside the Red Wings zone until Craven swept in his second of the contest exactly one minute later, and when Dave Poulin one-timed a bouncing puck through Hanlon’s five-hole with a  low, hard shot from between the circles, it was 10-6 (yes, you read that correctly) with 8:21 left in the contest.

The five goals in a span of five minutes and 29 seconds blew the doors off the original record (which was unspoken on the broadcast both in the moment and in the post-game) and remains the standard to this day for an unbroken run of scoring.

“We still had confidence when we were down 5-1,” Poulin noted. “We figured we’d just go out and play and the worst thing that could happen is we’d lose a hockey game.”

Hanlon wasn’t yanked until that Poulin goal, stuck with the loss after giving up a career-worst 10 goals on 34 shots. Sam St. Laurent got the nod as Greg Stefan was injured, and when Dave Brown rushed the net to tap in a Brian Propp rebound with 2:44 to play, the avalanche of offense was complete.

The seven goals in the third period was, and still is, an all-time Flyers record for any period in one game on the road. It is an outburst only equaled twice more in team annals, and eclipsed by only an eight-goal second period in a 10-2 Spectrum win over the New York Islanders on March, 31, 1973. The 11 total goals ranks as the most in one road game in franchise history, surpassing a 10-goal result at Vancouver in 1973 and a similar output at Los Angeles in 1992.

“I have to say, this was the strangest game I’ve ever been involved in on a professional level,” said Flyers head coach Mike Keenan. It was an atypical game for these two teams. Why it happened, I don’t know.”

During the entire eruption, Laforest sat back as if a passenger on a long journey. The Red Wings mustered just four more shots excepting Burr’s break-in, and rarely held the puck for longer than a few seconds through the middle portion of the third period.

Nonetheless, he did enough to earn the victory, stopping 13-of-16 shots over almost 41 minutes of action and shutting the door over the final 20 minutes.

Making this night more notable and unique, is that the Flyers won their next game in Detroit, by a 4-3 score on November 4, 1988, then didn’t win again in Michigan during either the regular season or playoffs until January of 2011.

And Rick Tocchet, who scored late in the first period, was in the midst of an insane scoring run the likes of which other franchise greats have not come close to accomplishing. He scored twice four days earlier in Buffalo, added the hat trick in the opener, then posted four goals in LA four days later and wrapped up the surge with a hat trick on March 1 in Vancouver — 13 goals in a five-game span.