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Great Moments: Flyers Battle to Brink of 1987 Stanley Cup

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
Throughout the season, will take a look back at some of the Great Moments in Flyers history with contributing writer Bill Meltzer. We will also be providing rare, and never-before-seen multimedia from the archives here in the Wachovia Center to supplement each column.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: 1987 Stanley Cup Finals

In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there’s no such thing as a moral victory. Losing in the Finals stings every bit as much – if not more – than an earlier round exit. But the 1986-87 Stanley Cup runner-up Philadelphia Flyers were every bit as worthy of winning the championship as the Broad Street Bullies clubs that won it all in 1974 and 1975.

The Mike Keenan-era Flyers simply had the misfortune of running into the Edmonton Oilers in the 1985 and 1987 Stanley Cup Finals. The dynastic Edmonton teams of those years are widely considered the greatest NHL clubs ever assembled. The clubs featured a quintet of Hockey Hall of Fame inductees in the primes of their careers – Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr.

Beyond that formidable group, Edmonton boasted the likes of frequent 40-to-50 goal scorer Glenn Anderson, two-way talent and mega-pest Esa Tikkanen, solid defensemen Kevin Lowe and Charlie Huddy, shutdown center and top faceoff man Craig MacTavish and one of the toughest enforcers in NHL history in Marty McSorley.
The Flyers' Dave Brown was part of a tough 1987 Philadelphia Flyers squad that came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup. (Flyers archives)

In contrast, the Flyers clubs of that era had plenty of talent but not on the same order as Edmonton.  Philadelphia had one Hall of Fame caliber player in defenseman Mark Howe, Vezina Trophy goaltending from Pelle Lindbergh in 1984-85 and Ron Hextall in 1986-87, top snipers in Tim Kerr and Brian Propp, a nasty shutdown defenseman in Brad McCrimmon, loads of toughness (Rick Tocchet, Dave Brown, Scott Mellanby and Craig Berube), two-way talents like team captain Dave Poulin, Murray Craven, Ilkka Sinisalo and Peter Zezel, plus a fine young playmaking forward in Pelle Eklund.

Defensively, Howe and McCrimmon often played 30 or more minutes per game, with much of the remaining time going to Brad Marsh, Doug Crossman and Kjell Samuelsson (acquired from the Rangers in 1986-87 in exchange for goaltender Bob Froese).

Something else the Flyers had in spades was heart and leadership. The young team believed in itself and was single-minded in its drive to win. That, along with its outstanding goaltending, was how Philadelphia was able to push Edmonton to the full seven games in the 1987 Finals two years after losing in five hard-fought contests. The Flyers also routinely held their own in head-to-head meetings with Edmonton during the regular season games.

Season of adversity

The 1986-87 season was the zenith of the Keenan era. As it did the previous two years, the club captured the Patrick Division championship with a 100-point season. But the team battled through some significant injuries, including a serious knee injury to Propp that forced him to miss 27 games and back problems suffered by Norris Trophy runner-up Howe that kept him out for 10 games.
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The club would soon have even worse luck, health-wise, in the playoffs. Selke Trophy winner Poulin sustained broken ribs in the first round of the playoffs, and later donned a flak jacket to protect the area. Kerr, who led the club with 58 goals and 95 points, suffered a serious shoulder injury that ended his playoff run after 12 games and permanently affected his career. Sinisalo, Craven and Ron Sutter (injured in January) were also unavailable for much of the postseason.

“Everyone faces challenges and trying times, and facing them in the context of a hockey season just makes it a tougher test. But in many ways you learn more from those times than when things go the way you want them to,” said Poulin, who also played through cracked ribs in the 1985 playoffs.

When the lineup was reasonably intact, the Flyers boasted an extremely potent power play, triggered by Howe at the point, Eklund behind the net, power forward Kerr parked in front of the net and Propp or Sinisalo buzzing around the slot.

Most of all, they benefited from phenomenal goaltending from rookie keeper Ron Hextall. Hextall’s Vezina Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy winning play enabled the injury-riddled club to stretch the deeper, more talented Oilers to a full seven games in the Stanley Cup Finals.

“Hexy’s first season may have been the best year of goaltending I’ve ever seen,” recalled Howe. “The way he played against Montreal and Edmonton in the playoffs was unbelievable. I don’t think we would have even gotten to the Finals if not for that and certainly wouldn’t have gone seven with the Oilers.”

Hextall let his presence be known early. Prior to the departure of Froese, the erstwhile No. 1 netminder half-jokingly told Hextall on the team bus to get up and move because,
“This seat is reserved for the starting goalie.”

The rookie locked eyes with Froese. “I’ll be taking this seat, then,” said Hextall.

Froese wasn’t the only unhappy Flyer. Keenan’s constant screaming and belittling of individual players in front of teammates had begun to lose its effect. Many of the players who had been around for all three seasons under Keenan were no longer intimidated by their coach.

Behind the scenes, the leadership group of Poulin, Howe and Marsh frequently cajoled their teammates to stay with the program. A mutiny against Keenan was dangerously close at hand, and there was the potential for players to collectively quit on the coach. Instead, the players channeled their anger into a ferocious unity on the ice.

Costly victory over Rangers

The Flyers went into the first round of the 1987 playoffs eager for revenge against the New York Rangers, who had stunned them in the first round the year earlier.  Things got off on the wrong foot, as John Vanbiesbrouck shut out the Flyers in the Spectrum opener, 3-0. But the Flyers roared back to dominate a fight-filled second game, 8-3.

As the scene shifted to Madison Square Garden for Game Three, Hextall recorded his first career playoff shutout, 3-0 before the Rangers knotted the series at two games apiece with a 6-3 win in Game Four.

Back at the Spectrum for the fifth game, the Flyers fired 40 shots on net, and a pair of tallies from Tocchet and a second-period marker from frequent Ranger-killer Kerr were all Hextall needed. The second Tocchet tally into an empty net sealed the 3-1 win, and a three-games-to-two series lead.

Two nights later, Hextall stopped all 34 shots fired his way for his second shutout of the series. The Flyers won, 5-0, and clinched the series.

War of attrition with the Islanders

In the quarterfinal round of the playoffs, the Flyers took on the New York Islanders. The series turned into a seven-game war of attrition.

In Game One, Kerr staked the Flyers to an early 2-0 lead, and completed a hat trick in the 4-1 win. Two nights later, the Flyers suffered a heartbreaking 2-1 defeat at the Spectrum.

The Flyers rebounded with a 4-1 win in a nasty affair on Long Island. Game Four was an even wilder contest. Injury call-up Tim Tookey gave the Flyers their first lead barely a minute after Kerr potted a Howe rebound on the power play, and Philly never looked back.
J.J. Daigneault's goal in Game Six at the Spectrum stands as one of the most famous goals in Flyers franchise history. (Flyers archives)

The Flyers held a three to one advantage in the series, heading back to Philadelphia with a chance to close it out. But the Islanders, who had been in the same position in their first-round victory over Washington, responded with their best defensive game of the series, limiting Philly to 25 mostly harmless shots and just two power plays.

Back in Nassau Coliseum for the sixth game, Islanders stalwarts Mike Bossy and Brian Trottier staked the team to an early 2-0 lead. McCrimmon got one back in the first minute of the second period, but the Flyers were never able to find the equalizer.

First period goals from unlikely sources (Brown and a shorthander from Marsh) and Propp staked the Flyers to a 3-0 lead in Game Seven. In the third period, Sinisalo converted a pair of feeds from Zezel and the lead bulged to 5-0. Potvin ended Hextall’s shutout bid in the final minute with an otherwise meaningless goal.

Next up for the battered Flyers: the defending Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens. The Habs were pegged as the favorites to win the series, although they had finished with eight fewer points than the Flyers during the regular season.

Grit, finesse and fists vanquish Montreal

Sinisalo was the hero in the opener at the Spectrum. He scored twice, including the overtime game-winner as the Flyers prevailed, 4-3. Two nights later, the Habs solved Hextall four times before he was pulled in favor of Chico Resch, as the Flyers went down, 5-2.

The series moved to Montreal for the third and fourth games. In Game Three, the Flyers trailed 2-0 after the first period, but it could have been much worse. Hextall made 19 saves to prevent an early blowout.

“I can’t do any more than what I’ve already done,” Hextall said in the locker room between periods, as recounted in Full Spectrum. “You guys have to get going.”

In the second period, Eklund stepped to the forefront, beating Montreal goalie Brian Hayward twice to tie the game, 2-2. In the third period, Eklund set up Tocchet to give Philadelphia the 3-2 lead and silence the crowd.

Two nights later, the Flyers grabbed a three-games-to-one lead in the series with a 6-3 win.

The Flyers were unable to close out series at home in Game Five, as Montreal turned a 2-1 lead into a 4-1 advantage within a 19 second span in the second period.

In Game Six, a brawl broke out between the teams during the pre-game warmup.  The brawl was touched off because the Flyers were annoyed by Claude Lemieux’s pre-game ritual of letting all the other players leave the ice and then shooting a puck into the other side’s empty net.

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. Philadelphia roared back with two goals in the second and a Rick Tocchet goal at the 7:11 mark of the third period to take the lead. The Flyers won the game 3-2 and earned a return trip to play Edmonton in the Finals.

Taking Edmonton to the edge

When the Flyers met the Oilers in the 1985 Finals, Philly took the first game behind brilliant goaltending from Pelle Lindbergh, but succumbed in the next four games. Three were close but the finale, in which Vezina Trophy winner Lindbergh was unable to play after exacerbating a lingering knee injury, was an 8-3 blowout.

This time around, the Flyers had a little more seasoning under their belts and they had another Vezina Trophy keeper – not to mention the eventual Conn Smyth Trophy winner as playoff MVP – in Hextall.

“We had to battle through so much as a hockey team to get to the Finals that we weren’t intimated to play the Oilers. We had experience playing them before in ’85, and we respected all of the talent they had. But we weren’t scared, even when we got down in the series,” said Brown.

In the opening game in Edmonton, Wayne Gretzky scored with five minutes remaining in the first period to give his club the lead. Brown promptly restored some energy to his team by thrashing the overmatched Kelly Buchberger in a fight. Late in the second period, Propp tied the game. But a three-goal Edmonton blitz the first half of the third period gave the Oilers an insurmountable lead. The Oilers prevailed, 4-2.

In Game Two, Gretzky broke a scoreless tie in the opening minute of the second period but Derrick Smith and Propp replied in the latter part of the period to provide the Flyers with a 2-1 lead heading into the third stanza.

The Oilers dominated the third period, but Hextall made one miraculous save after another. At the 11:40 mark, Anderson tied the game to set up overtime. Early in the extra session, Propp’s bid for his second goal of the contest beat Fuhr cleanly but drew iron and stayed out. Finally, at the 6:50 mark of overtime, Jari Kurri one-timed a Paul Coffey pass into the net.

“Edmonton was relentless. They just kept coming and coming, and Hexy nearly stole the game for us. We had to really dig deep, because we were in trouble,” said Howe.

Returning to the Spectrum for the first time since the Montreal series, Flyers fans provided the team with a lift, screaming, chanting and even pleading with their team the entire game. The Flyers tried to respond, but Edmonton skated circles around their tiring legs, scoring three potentially backbreaking goals to go up, 3-0. First, Mark Messier scored shorthanded then Coffey scored in the final 10 seconds of the opening period. The second period opened with Hextall taking a penalty and Anderson converting at the 1:49 mark. The Flyers seemed dead in the water.

But somehow, some way, the Flyers recovered. A power play goal by Craven and several big saves by Hextall spurred the club to find its second wind. Zezel trimmed the deficit to 3-2 with a power play goal that was an attempted pass to Tocchet that deflected in off of defenseman Craig Muni.

In the third period, Howe made a brilliant pass to Mellanby, who beat Fuhr to tie the game. From there, it was all Flyers. On the next shift, Philadelphia’s Brad McCrimmon stunned the Oilers and electrified the building by joining the rush and re-directing a Mellanby feed past Fuhr. In the closing minute, Propp added an empty net goal for an improbable 5-3 win.

Gretzky and company came back in Game Four to win 4-1, and move Edmonton to within a game of its third Stanley Cup in four years, and second Finals win over Philadelphia in three years. Gretzky set up Kurri for the game’s first goal, and on the key play of the game, created a shorthanded goal on a rush that ended with Lowe eluding Propp and scoring to make it a 2-0 game. McCrimmon scored a power play goal in the second, but Edmonton got a pair of insurance goals.
An adoring crowd greets the Flyers upon their return from Edmonton following the Game Seven loss. (Flyers archives)

With the series heading back to Edmonton for Game Five, the city and local newspapers were already announcing parade routes and championship souvenirs were already on sale in local stores. Feeling counted out by everyone but themselves, the Flyers used Edmonton’s cockiness as an emotional rallying point. But the weary Philadelphia team promptly fell behind, 2-0, by the time the game was six and a half minutes old.

Tocchet gave his team something to build from in the final minute of the first period, finishing off a play started by Eklund. But Edmonton’s Marty McSorley scored his second goal of the game early in the second period to stake the Oilers to a 3-1 lead. The ultra-competitive Hextall, whose slash of Kent Nilsson later in the series resulted in a carryover suspension the next season, was furious that the goal had been allowed. He argued that the puck had been covered as McSorley poked away. 

The goaltender lost the debate, but did not allow another goal in the game.  By the end of the period, goals by Crossman and Eklund tied the game, 3-3. In the third period, Propp forced a Muni turnover and Tocchet re-directed the puck past Fuhr to take a 4-3 lead. The Flyers and Hextall nursed the lead through the remaining 14:34 to send the series back to Philadelphia.

Game Six of the 1987 Finals would go down as one of the crowning achievements in Flyers history. Once again, Edmonton dominated most of the play, but the Flyers simply refused to die.

Early in the first period, a disputed Kevin Lowe shorthanded goal on a clearly kicked puck was allowed to stand. On the play, Howe made a rare defensive mistake and was beaten badly by Gretzky. Later, a clean faceoff win by Craig MacTavish over Craven led to a Kevin McClelland goal.

In the second period, Edmonton controlled the vast majority of play. But Hextall kept the game manageable and the Flyers’ fourth line gave the team a huge lift. Brown slid a nifty pass between the legs of All-Star defenseman Lowe and Carson converted for his third goal of the playoffs. The Flyers trailed 2-1 after the second stanza, despite being outshot 24 to 13.

The Flyers’ power play had done precious little all game long, but finally broke through in the third period. At the 13:04 mark, Propp found open space in the slot, took a feed from Eklund and ripped a perfect shot upstairs over Fuhr to tie the game. The Spectrum crowd roared with a deafening ovation.

Two shifts later, seldom-used young Flyers defenseman J.J. Daigneault stepped into the limelight for one of the most famous goals in team history. Jumping off of the bench, he gained the blue line just in time to collect a failed clearing attempt by Kurri, and ripped the puck past Fuhr as utter bedlam ensued in the Spectrum.

Replays showed that Mellanby screened Fuhr and may well have deflected the puck home. But the goal forever stands as Daigneault’s.

“If Scotty scored it, he’d be the last one to tell you,” Poulin said years later, a big smile crossing his face.

The Flyers protected the lead successfully, but there was a near catastrophe in the final 10 seconds. Hextall came out of his net and tried to clear the puck up the middle. Messier intercepted the flip and, with the goalie caught, moved in for a scoring chance. Miraculously, Hextall recovered in time.  The crowd and the players on the Flyers bench gasped in unison and breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Although Philadelphia would go on to lose Game Seven in Edmonton, the 1987 playoff run still stands as one of the most memorable and thrilling achievements in the history of the franchise.
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