In the first season of the Wells Fargo Center’s existence the Philadelphia Flyers took their first trip in a decade to the Stanley Cup Final. Although the 1996-97 campaign ended in a disappointing four-game loss to the Detroit Red Wings in the Final, a season of ups and downs was highlighted by a magnificent run through the Eastern Conference playoffs that saw Philly need just 15 games to win the Prince of Wales Trophy. The run culminated with a 4-2 victory at what was then known as the CoreStates Center in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers.
Throughout the regular season and playoffs, the Flyers battled key injuries. Eric Lindros (32 goals, 79 points) missed 30 games due to groin, back and elbow injuries, while his Legion of Doom linemate Mikael Renberg (22 goals, 59 points) recovered slowly from off-season sports hernia surgery, and later sustained a gruesome facial injury after getting accidentally kicked by the skate of Ottawa’s Randy Cunneyworth, followed by a postseason foot injury that required surgery after the playoffs. The defense was also banged up, with veteran starters Paul Coffey, Petr Svoboda and Kjell Samuelsson all missing significant time.
“That was kind of a strange season,” recalls Chris Therien. “Obviously, we had a good team [103 points], and guys like Johnny [LeClair] had huge years. In some ways, I think we had a better club the year before, but things lined up for us in the playoffs.”
The constants on the team throughout the season were LeClair (50 goals, 97 points), Rod Brind’Amour (27 goals, 59 points) and the stalwart checking of the Minnesota Line of Joel Otto, Shjon Podein and Trent Klatt (22 goals). Eighteen-year-old rookie winger Dainius Zubrus (8 goals, 21 points) showed flashes of potential occasionally spelling Renberg on the top line.
In the meantime, veteran Dale Hawerchuk (12 goals, 34 points in 51 games) did a good job early in the season filling in for Lindros and had a couple strong weeks on a line with Brind’Amour and Klatt before injuries set him back for much of the remainder of the season. Rookie forward Vaclav Prospal took over and played admirably (5 goals, 15 points in 18 games) down the stretch and the first round of the playoffs (4 points in 5 games) before being lost for the rest of the postseason with a broken wrist suffered at practice.
Underachieving right wing Pat Falloon spent much of the season on the scratch sheet, but played well in March on a line with Prospal and Brind’Amour.
On defense, Eric Desjardins (12 goals, 46 points, +26) had one of the best seasons of his career despite the trade that sent his longtime defense partner, Kevin Haller, to Hartford in the deal that brought Coffey to Philly. After playing most of the previous season with Samuelsson and spending the early part of 1996-97 in coach Terry Murray’s doghouse, Therien had a fabulous second half of the season and excellent playoff run paired with Desjardins.
Meanwhile, rookie Janne Niinimaa (44 points, +12) showed tremendous promise paired with Coffey and steady veteran Svoboda was effective when healthy. Karl Dykhuis had an up-and-down campaign, while the likes of Michel Petit, Darren Rumble and trade deadline acquisition Frantisek Kucera struggled to fill in for Samuelsson during his five-month absence.
|Garth Snow shared time in net with Ron Hextall during the entire 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs. |
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In goal, neither Ron Hextall (55 GP, 2.56 GAA, .897 save percentage) nor Garth Snow (35 GP, 2.52 GAA, .903 save percentage) played as well in 1995-96 as they did in the previous season. The prior year, Hextall had arguably his second-best season in the NHL (surpassed only by his otherworldly rookie season of 1986-87), while Snow unseated Dominic Roussel as the backup. This time around, neither goalie was able to get on a roll for an extended period. Murray ended up rotating the goaltenders during the playoffs.
“We had a lot of guys in and out of the lineup, and that didn’t help,” recalls Samuelsson. “Hexy and Snow had some great games for us, but there was a lot of talk in the media about the goaltending. That’s how it goes.”
In the playoffs, however, everything started to gel as the club got reasonably healthy. In the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the Flyers dismantled the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games.
Winning all three games in Philadelphia by a combined score of 14-6, the Flyers sent Mario Lemieux into retirement (he later returned after three seasons).
Lindros was now healthy and Renberg, who averaged over a point-per-game from late January to the end of the regular season despite having been removed from the power play, had regained his scoring touch. Combined with LeClair, who went on a tear from November onward, the Legion of Doom ran roughshod over the Pens the entire series. In the clinching game, Rod Brind’Amour scored a pair of shorthanded goals on the same kill to drive a stake through Pittsburgh’s hearts. Snow started all five games in goal for the Flyers.
In the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Flyers took out the Buffalo Sabres in five games. Brind’Amour and Renberg carried much of the scoring load early in the series, while LeClair and Lindros took over late in the series. The captain punctuated the series with a penalty shot goal among his two goals in the clinching fifth game victory in Buffalo. Zubrus also scored a pair in the final game, which Philly won 6-3. Snow played the first four games of the series, Hextall started the clincher.
That set the stage for a showdown with the archrival New York Rangers. The Flyers had swept the Blueshirts in the 1995 playoffs, one year after New York won its first and only Stanley Cup since 1940. Although the Flyers finished 17 points ahead of the Rangers during the 1996-97 regular season, they were still plenty dangerous.
“The Rangers were an aging team, but the flip side is the playoff experience they had. When you went up against a team that had Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Adam Graves and Luc Robitaille – all proven winners, all of them capable of taking over a game at any time – you had to come ready to play every night. That’s exactly what the Flyers did, and it was a tremendous accomplishment to win as easily as they did,” said broadcaster Bill Clement.
Renberg, who had an ongoing problem with bone chips in his ankle, suffered considerable pain as the postseason progressed. As a result, Murray replaced him on the top line with Zubrus for the duration of the playoffs, moving Renberg onto Brind’Amour’s line. A somewhat similar arrangement had worked for a three-game stint earlier in the season (Zubrus went to the top line, Klatt went to the Brind’Amour line and Renberg played with Otto) and proved effective again in the series against the Rangers.
|Lindros & Yzerman were two of the biggest forces in the game who collided in the 1997 Final. |
In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final, Murray tabbed Snow to start in goal. First period goals by Zubrus and Niinimaa sent the Philadelphia crowd into a frenzy. After a scoreless middle frame, Eric Desjardins gave Philly a 3-0 lead with 11:26 remaining in regulation. Snow took care of the rest, making 12 stops in the final period. He lost his shutout bid with 10 seconds left in the game on a Robitaille goal, but the outcome had already been decided.
In Game 2, the Rangers struck back. LeClair put Philly up early, but a three goal outburst from the Rangers in the first period, led by back-to-back Gretzky goals on the power play put New York up, 3-1 after the first period. Coffey, Brind’Amour and Renberg combined their playmaking and scoring talents to knot up the game in the middle period but Gretzky and Messier forged a 5-3 lead for New York minutes later. Snow (who only stopped 5 of 10 shots) gave way to Hextall. Podein got the Flyers back within a goal late in the second period but Richter (26 saves) nailed down the win with an outstanding third period.
The scene shifted to Madison Square for the next two games. In Game 3, Murray decided to stick with Hextall in goal after he stopped all 12 shots fired his way in relief duty the previous game. The Flyers grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first period courtesy of goals by Lindros and Svoboda. The score held until the third period when Russ Courtnall scored a pair of early goals to knot the score. Lindros answered back to forge a 3-2, but Gretzky countered at the 14:21 mark to make it a 3-3 game.
The raucous MSG crowd was quieted less than a half-minute later when Klatt put Philly ahead to stay. Brind’Amour gave the Flyers some insurance with 3:08 left to play, and Lindros -- dragging a desperate Messier draped across his back in the offensive zone-- completed the hat trick into an empty net to make it a 6-3 final. Hextall, who made 25 saves in Game 3, remained in goal the rest of the series.
Game 4 would prove to be one of the most memorable matches in Flyers history. Renberg shrugged off a big hit from Jeff Beukeboom to forge a 1-0 lead in the first period. Philly protected the narrow lead until early in the third period when veteran pest Esa Tikkanen scored shorthanded to tie the game. The score remained knotted until, with 3:13 remaining, John Druce tallied shorthanded to put Philly up, 2-1. Rather than wilting, Gretzky set up Brian Leetch for a tying goal barely a minute later.
The Flyers got a huge opportunity when, with 1:35 remaining Beukeboom’s high stick of LeClair resulted in a double minor. With just seven seconds remaining in regulation, Lindros shuffled arguably the biggest goal of his NHL career past Richter to win the game. Winning goalie Hextall made 31 saves.
The stage was now set for Philadelphia to win the Prince of Wales Trophy on home ice in Game 5. Lindros got Philly off and running with a power play tally early in the first period, but closely spaced mid-period goals by Tikkanen and Alexander Karpovtsev gave New York a short-lived lead. Before the first period ended, LeClair and Brind’Amour (power play) combined to restore the lead for Philadelphia. The Flyers played stifling defense the rest of the way, limited the Blueshirts to just 19 shots for the game. Hextall came up big when needed. Finally, Brind’Amour provided an insurance goal in the third period to win the game,4-2, and send the Flyers back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since Hextall’s rookie campaign.
Following the standard superstition of the time, the Flyers players avoided touching the Wales Trophy after the handshake line. But looking back at the series years later, earning a trip to the Finals in the first year at the new arena was a special memory for most everyone involved. For an older player like Dale Hawerchuk, who had starred in the NHL for years without reaching the Stanley Cup Final, it was as close as they ever got to hockey’s ultimate prize. For other players, it was the next step in a process of steady improvement for the Flyers that began during the lockout shortened 1994-95 season.
“I was still a younger player in’97 but it would turn out that it would be the only time my team who get to the Final. Even though we all wished the series against Detroit turned out different, I can look back at getting that far, and it’s something I’ll never forget,” said Therien.
As it turned out, the Flyers’ clinching victory in the 1997 Eastern Conference Finals would prove to be the most important win in the building for the next 13 years. Only when the club won Games 3 and 4 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final did the club emerge victorious in a more meaningful game on Wells Fargo Center ice.