One of Poulin's key roles as captain was to serve as a buffer between the players and the intensely critical Keenan. When necessary, Poulin was not afraid to support his teammates and stood up to Keenan in a respectful way. Poulin recognized that Keenan had a brilliant mind for the game and wanted his club to play the right way every night.
"Perfection is impossible to attain in this sport. But there are variables that are under your control, and that's what Mike Keenan constantly harped on. Never get beaten because the other team was more prepared than you, physically or mentally. There was no hiding from Mike. He figured each one of us out very quickly," Poulin said.
Under the new captain's leadership, the other Flyers fell in line. Poulin's mental toughness and focus were nothing short of remarkable.
"To be successful in this business, you need discipline," he explains. "A lot of my discipline was learned from the academic side of Notre Dame, and that carried over into what made me a disciplined player in the NHL."
Behind the stellar goaltending of Lindbergh, the inexperienced 1984-85 Flyers surprised the entire NHL by running away with the Patrick Divison and shrugging off a host of key injuries to reach the Stanley Cup Finals against the star-studded Edmonton Oilers.
Poulin, who battled through a groin pull to post 30 goals and 74 points during the 1984-85 regular season, missed six of the team's first eight playoff matches after suffering a ligament tear in his left knee in the second game of the Flyers' three-game sweep of the Rangers. He missed the entire second round against the New York Islanders before returning for the Wales Conference Finals against the speedy Quebec Nordiques.
The Flyers settled for a split the first two games in Quebec, losing 2-1 in overtime in Game One before bouncing back to take Game Two by a 4-2 count. In the second game, Poulin suffered cracked ribs when he took a stick to the ribcage from Quebec's Mario Marois. Before going to the locker room, Poulin cradled a lead pass from linemate Craven and beat goaltender Mario Gosselin to give the team a 1-0 lead while shorthanded.
Poulin was unable to play in Games Three and Four back at the Spectrum. Lindbergh was sensational in goal the third game, enabling the injury-riddled team to win 4-2 despite the absences of Poulin, Tim Kerr and Brad McCrimmon. Quebec took the next tilt 5-3 to knot the series at two games apiece.
The captain returned, donning a flak jacket to protect his injured ribs. The Flyers were outplayed in much of Game Five, but Lindbergh (who suffered a knee injury in the game, but remained in net) preserved a 2-1 win. With a chance to clinch the series and avoid a seventh game, the grateful Flyers headed back to Philadelphia for Game Six on May 16, 1985.
The Flyers clung to a slim 1-0 lead after the first period, but found themselves in dire straights early in the second stanza. Minor penalties to forwards Joe Paterson and forward Brian Propp left Philadelphia at a five-on-three disadvantage. In one of the most dramatic moments in team history, Dave Poulin came to the rescue.
Poulin picked off a cross-ice pass by Marois in the defensive zone and raced off on a clean breakaway. The sold-out Spectrum crowd collectively rose to its feet, holding its breath as Poulin skated in on butterfly goaltender Gosselin.
"I knew I had a clean breakaway even before I got to the red line, which is way too much time to think about what you're going to do. All series long, we kept preaching to shoot high on Gosselin, so I was looking to shoot high all the way," Poulin recalls.
Poulin beat Gosselin cleanly over the glove and the Spectrum crowd went bonkers. The Flyers went on to dominate the rest of the game. Lindbergh took care of the rest as team won the game 3-0 and earned a trip to the Finals.
The Flyers, who had beaten Edmonton eight straight times at the Spectrum, took the opener by a 4-1 score. Poulin punctuated the win with a late-game empty net goal. In Game Two, Poulin played with the heart of a lion to earn third-star honors. But the Flyers couldn't erase a 2-1 deficit and an empty net goal by the Oilers in the final half-minute of play sealed a 3-1 win.
The Flyers lost Lindbergh for the remainder of the series in the next game, and the club went down to defeat 4-3. The Flyers came out with a vengeance early in Game Four, scoring in the first minute of play. But Poulin and the rest of the Flyers ran out of steam and had no legs left to skate with the Oilers. Edmonton won the game 5-3 and went on to blow out the Flyers 8-3 to win the 1985 Stanley Cup.
The Flyers roared out of the gates early in the 1985-86 season and once again went on to easily win the Patrick Division. Poulin earned his first of three straight NHL All-Star selections. But the entire season, which ended in a huge upset loss to the Rangers in the first round, had a pall over it after Lindbergh died in a November automobile accident.
Poulin was grief-stricken by Lindbergh's loss, but he summoned his resolve to provide emotional support for the team while helping keep everyone focused on hockey at practice and on game nights. On the ice, he posted 27 goals and 69 points. More importantly, he provided emotional strength at a time he wasn't feeling very strong himself.
"Pelle's death shook every one of us to our core. It shattered the illusion of invincibility of athletes, especially young ones, often feel," says Poulin. "Playing hockey was cathartic for us, but it was very hard to carry on in the beginning."
Early in the spring of 1986, Dave and Kim Poulin learned Kim was pregnant with the couple's first children - twin girls. But tears of joy turned to despair when Kim suffered pregnancy complications and the babies were born extremely premature on October 2, 1986. Thankfully, Lindsay and Taylor Poulin survived and the girls went on to have healthy, happy childhoods.
Somehow, Dave managed to once again separate personal concerns from his job as a hockey player. He posted 70 points in 75 games and a phenomenal +47 rating in the regular season. In the playoffs, he helped lead the team back to the Stanley Cup Finals.
"Everyone faces challenges and trying times, and facing them in the context of a hockey season just makes it a tougher test," says Poulin. "But in many ways you learn more from those times than when things go the way you want them to."
Poulin and the Flyers went into the first round of the playoffs eager for revenge against the Rangers. Philly knocked out the Blueshirts in six games, but Poulin, who scored twice in the series, paid a heavy price. In the clincher, he suffered cracked ribs, just as he had in 1985.
Poulin missed the first six games of the Flyers' seven-game war with the Islanders, but returned (once again wearing a flak jacket) to hustle up a pair of assists in the deciding tilt. He was then forced to the sidelines for the first five games of the Wales Conference Finals against the Montreal Canadiens. Poulin dressed for the Game Five warmup but remained scratched from the lineup. Finally, with the Flyers leading the series three games to two, the captain rejoined the squad for Game Six at the Forum.
A fight broke out between the teams during the pregame warmup, further heightening the already sky-high emotion going into game. The Forum crowd loudly booed the Star Spangled Banner and then roared when Montreal struck for a goal in the first minute of the game. The Habs controlled the tempo early. But midway through the opening period, with the Flyers shorthanded, the injured captain came up huge.
The Flyers broke out on a 3-on-2 rush, with defenseman Doug Crossman carrying the puck. Montreal forward Bobby Smith overcommitted to Crossman on the backcheck, leaving Poulin open to receive the pass. Poulin then moved around desperate goaltender Brian Hayward and deposited the puck in the net to tie the game.
Montreal regained the lead late in the first period and extended the lead to 3-1 early in the second period before Philadelphia roared back with two goals in the second. A Rick Tocchet goal at the 7:11 mark of the third period gave the Flyers the lead. Poulin did yeoman work helping to protect the lead for Keenan's team. The Flyers won the game 3-2 and earned a return trip to play Edmonton in the Finals.
Poulin failed to register a point in the Finals, concentrating mostly on his defensive assignment against Wayne Gretzky. The Flyers stretched Edmonton the full seven games and even scored first in Game Seven, but ultimately the Oilers prevailed.
After the season, Poulin was honored with the Selke Trophy, representative of the best defensive forward in the NHL. Earlier in the season, he represented the NHL in the Rendezvous '87 series against the Soviet Union. While Poulin would gladly have traded the individual honors for the Stanley Cup, they were well-deserved accolades.
In 1987-88, the Flyers had a tumultuous season. Many key players, particularly Tim Kerr, never fully recovered physically from the playoff wars of the previous season. Poulin was limited to 68 games (19 goals, 51 points, +17), but earned his third consecutive All-Star selection.
The players had enough of Keenan's ultra-abrasive style of coaching, although Poulin and the rest of the leadership group staved off an outright mutiny until after the season. The club went from 100 points to 85 (three points behind the division-winning Islanders).
In the playoffs, the Flyers were knocked out by the Washington Capitals in a seven-game first round series. Poulin wasn't the problem. The captain had 6 points and a +5 rating, contributing quality shift after quality shift.
Now approaching his 30th birthday, Poulin began the slow transition from NHL star to veteran mentor for the younger talent. While he continued to be a solid setup man and stellar defensive forward, Poulin's role as a goal scorer gradually decreased with each successive season.
"I really enjoyed that role of being a mentor, of making a difference for others," Poulin recalls.
Under new Flyers Head Coach Paul Holmgren, the 1988-89 Flyers posted a .500 record in the regular season (36-36-8) and fell to fourth place in the Patrick Division, barely slipping into the playoffs. Poulin, who battled through a concussion and separated shoulder, was limited to 69 games and 35 points.
But the club came together when it really mattered. In what proved to be the final Philadelphia hurrah for Dave Poulin and the forward nucleus of the Keenan-era clubs, the Flyers made a run to the Conference Finals, before bowing out to Montreal in six games. Poulin had six goals and 11 points during the playoff run, including the winning goal in the third period of Game Five against Montreal.
The next season, 1989-90, was one of the bleakest in Flyers history. The team posted its first losing record since 1971-72 and missed the playoffs. Unfortunately, Dave Poulin ended up being one of the main casualties, although he ultimately benefited with a fresh start. First, the Flyers opted to give the captaincy to Ron Sutter in December of 1989. The next month, the Flyers traded Poulin to the Boston Bruins, in an ill-fated deal that sent Ken Linseman back to the Flyers. The loss of the captaincy and the trade stung Poulin.
"I don't know if bitter was ever the right word. I was disappointed. I wore that uniform proudly, and I was honored to be captain. I think a lot of my success has to come from the fact that I was proud and took things personally. That's the only way I can be successful. I lived the game in Philadelphia as well as playing it there," Poulin said in Gene Hart's book, Score!
The Bruins benefited immediately from the addition of Poulin (as well as longtime Flyers star Brian Propp). Boston reached the 1989-90 Stanley Cup Finals before losing in five games to Edmonton. As always, Poulin was a playoff warrior, scoring eight goals and 13 points. The next year,
the Bruins won the Adams Division, although Poulin was limited to 31 games. Poulin remained with the Bruins as an assistant captain until the end of the 1992-93 season.
In 1993, he was honored with the King Clancy Trophy for his tireless work for charitable, community and educational causes. Poulin finished out his career with two seasons with the Washington Capitals, retiring at the end of the lockout shortened 1994-95 season.