NHL Network Radio’s Mick Kern checks in on the Flyers

Flyers

Leo Komarov #47 of the Toronto Maple Leafs battles for position in the crease with Brandon Manning #23 of the Philadelphia Flyers as Michal Neuvirth #30 of the Philadelphia Flyers follows the play during the third period at the Air Canada Centre on March 9, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Thursday, March 9th, 2017
Air Canada Centre – Toronto, Canada
Philadelphia Flyers at Toronto Maple Leafs

The Philadelphia Flyers.

I can’t imagine a time when they weren’t around, causing trouble at the back of the bus, giving the finger to the substitute teacher, threatening to rough up my friend Bartholomew for his lunch money, and generally making life slightly uncomfortable for those around them.

May the Hockey Gods bless the Flyers!  Everyone needs a counterpoint in order to truly measure themselves by.  The boys in the prison jumpsuit orange uniforms have fit that bill since the early 1970’s.

And that’s a key point to underscore; out of the gate, the second NHL team in the City of Brotherly Love weren’t the Broadstreet Bullies we will now and forever think of them as.   It took a number of beatings, both on the scoreboard and more importantly on the ice, at the hands of the St. Louis Blues for general manager Keith Allen and crew to say enough.

The Battlin’ Blues.  Yes, the home of the likes of Red Berenson, and then Gary Unger.  But also the home of the likes of the Plager brothers (Barclay, Bob and Bill), and Steve Durbano and even briefly Connie “Mad Dog” Madigan.  The Blues could turn a team black ‘n blue with the fists and with the goal scoring,

The Flyers had talent; the likes of Serge Bernier, and Andre Lacroix, and a young Bobby Clarke.  But they had to load up on muscle in order to survive the Wild, Wild West.

So they did.  As much as the addition of the players such as Rick MacLeish (50 goals and 100 points at the age of 23), the repatriation of all-world goalie Bernie Parent, and most importantly, the drafting of Bobby Clark were all pivotal in the advancement of the Flyers franchise…it was the likes of Andre Dupont (a fomer Battlin’ Blue), and Don Saleski, and Gary Dornhoefer, and Bob Kelly and Dave Schultz that cemented this team’s identity.  Forever.  Whether fairly or not.

But it certainly was accurate in the early 1970’s.  And hockey was never the same.

Like the Beatles before them (follow me here), who didn’t invent a new form of rock ‘n roll but were brilliant synthesizers of the myriad influences swirling around them, the Flyers took things that had always existed in pro hockey, threw them together in a daring pastiche of styles, and turned it all up to 11.

The result was often garish, and gaudy, and occasionally debasing, but alarmingly successful.  The high skill players such as Clarke, MacLeish, Barber, Ashbee, Bladon, and later Reggie Leach could operate to their full potential thanks to Hound Dog and Big Bird and the Moose and especially the Hammer running teams through their three ring circus.

And overseeing all these seemingly disparate elements was head coach Fred Shero.  His handling of all the tools at his disposal was brilliant, and his 2013 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame was long overdue.  In a world where we far too easily declare people as trailblazers and different makers, Freddie the Fog was truly an innovator.

He understood that hockey many have begun in Canada, but it did not end there. A marginal NHL player in his time (158 games with the Rangers) and an amateur boxing champion while growing up on the mean streets of Winnipeg, Shero took the best of the NHL game, and fused it with the emerging European ethos.  Imagine Shero, in his prime, coaching today.  He could make the jump.

After coming up short against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Canadiens in the spring of 1973, Shero and the Flyers obtained the finishing touch for their burgeoning team.

Bernie Parent.

Originally a Boston Bruin netminder, the Montreal native was an original Flyer, and spent almost four seasons wearing the orange before being shipped to the Toronto Maple Leafs, which turned out to be the single most important thing to happen to his career since Mama Parent signed him up for hockey.

Jacques Plante.

The old goaltending master was with the Maple Leafs at that stage in his storied career, and he played a willing teacher to a willing pupil.  Parent was the modern day Plante.  Stand up style when stand up style was the overwhelmingly dominant approach to goaltending.  Parent took his Plante devotion to the point of looking like Jake the Snake.  Google pictures of the two from the early 1970’s for evidence.

It boggles the mind to think the perpetually rebuilding Toronto franchise once had both of these legends on the same team at the same time.  For the record, the 1970-71 Leafs finished 4 games over .500, and the trio of Plante, Parent and Bruce Gamble started all but two games that season.

The next season, Toronto went with Plante (34 games) and Parent (47) games, and finished 2 games above .500.  Parent posted a 2.65 and a 2.56 goals-against-average during his Maple Leafs’ days.  His average during his one WHA season was 3.61 with a .886 save percentage.  Even in the age before the dead puck era, these were not stellar numbers.

In the summer of 1972, as the hockey world prepares for the upcoming Summit Series, a large number of pros jumped over to the fledgling World Association.  Including Bernie Parent.  Jake the Snake Jr. became a Miami Screaming Eagle.  Well, for a brief time, until that bird was grounded forever.  The team, and Parent, moved to Philadelphia, as a member of the Blazers.

That endeavour never really caught fire, and after one season, Parent wanted back into the NHL.  But not with the Leafs, so they swung a deal with the other Philly team, and Bernie returned to the Flyers in time for the 1973-74 season.  A season that proved the rule the team makes the goalie and the goalie makes the team.  Parent posted a miniscule 1.89 goals-against-average, before “ballooning” up to a 2.03 average the following year.

Add to that resume 12 shutouts each season, and Parent understandably walked away with the Vezina Trophy each year (sharing it with Tony Esposito of the Black Hawks in 73-74).

Quick note – first awarded in 1927, the Vezina criteria was changed in 1946.  Thereafter, the Vezina was given to the goaltender with the best goals against average.  And remember back then, every team would employ one goaltender for the season, with the exception of injuries. This criteria lasted until the 1981-82 season, then the Vezina became an award the NHL general managers voted on.  The best team goals-against-average were awarded the William M. Jennings Trophy.

Regardless of the criteria, there is no doubt Parent would have won the Vezina in at least one of those seasons. Add to that two First Team All-Star honours, as well as two Conn Smythe Trophies as the top player in the post-season, and Bernie was at the top of his game during his first two years back with the Flyers.

Parent also finished high in voting for the Hart Trophy, which is given to the player judged to be the best player that season, ignore what the official definition for the trophy says.  Bernie was runner-up to the Bruins’ Phil Esposito in 1974, and then was fourth in voting in 1975 (behind Bobby Clarke, Rogie Vachon and Bobby Orr).

The Flyers were one of top teams during the 1973-74 season, and ended up meeting the still Big Bad Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final.  It would be the last time Bobby Orr ever played in the Cup Final, and the last time for the likes of Phil Esposito and Ken Hodge in the Final wearing a Bruins uniform.  Not that we knew that then.

Some things just seemed to be eternal, like Bobby Orr playing at the top of his game, and Espo being a Bruin.  And no 1967 expansion team winning the revered Stanley Cup.  Who even let these barbarians through the gates?

Except things do change, often painfully, and the Flyers took out the Original Six representatives in six games, wrapping it all up on a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon in May.

And things were never the same.

Other teams attempted to copy the Flyers’ successful blueprint, but lacked many of the key elements.  Such as Clarke, and Barber, and MacLeish, and Parent.

Philadelphia would repeat as Stanley Cup champions the following year, beating a very good Buffalo Sabres team in six games.  A Sabres team in only their fifth year of existence.  Many still believe the deciding factor in the series was Parent over Buffalo goaltenders Gerry Desjardins and Roger Crozier.

Whatever the reason, the Flyers were repeat Cup champions, and the aforementioned Parent took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, the first player to do so in back-to-back seasons.

Unfortunately, the Flyers were without Parent, and MacLeish (due to injuries) when they faced a loaded Montreal team in the Cup Final in the spring of 1976 and were swept in four straight, though all the games were close.

Since those long ago glory years, Philadelphia has been a frequent participant in the Stanley Cup Final, but have always come up short in winning their third championship.

They lost to the Islanders in 1980, the Oilers in 1985 and 1987 (the last one a classic 7 game series), the Red Wings in 1997, and the Blackhawks in 2010.

But that was all then; what about now?  Who are the Philadelphia Flyers in 2017?

These days, the Flyers are fighting to secure the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.  Entering Thursday’s game in Toronto against one of Bernie Parent’s former teams, Philadelphia sit three points back of the Islanders for that slot.  The Leafs are a point ahead of Philly, so tonight is a Charles Wang play-in game.

Watching the Flyers line up on the blue line for the national anthems, the camera lingers on #3.

Radko Gudas.

The Moose and Hound Dog would love this guy.

Always seemingly in the middle of events, Gudas can play mean, and he can play dirty, and he can be very effective.  It only seems like he’s on the cusp of trouble with the league every couple of weeks.  Fittingly, Gudas draws the first penalty of the game for the Flyers.

Another player those old Flyers would like is Wayne Simmonds.

The former Los Angeles King forward has become a force in Eastern Pennsylvania, and is the reigning All-Star Game MVP.  He also scores the first goal of the evening, quickly stuffing in a Shane Gostisbehere point shot that rings off the cross bar behind Leafs’ netminder Frederik Andersen.

Toronto would tie things up on a nice shot from the right side by rookie William Nylander. The power play goal knotted things up a 1-1.  It also tied a team record for most power play markers by a rookie (9).

The Flyers dominated much of that opening frame, though the Leafs came alive after their power play goal, and the period ended with Toronto holding a slim 8-7 edge in shots.

With this being a quasi-playoff game, the second period held the potential for play to ramp up in intensity.  Old time hockey.

Five minutes into the period, there’s not that much to write home about.  The Flyers hit the post.  That’s about it.  Maybe the lack of red hot intensity is precisely because these two teams are currently non-playoff teams.  You are who you are, as Popeye kind of once said.  Yet even Pee Wee teams that don’t make the playoffs, and are resigned to playing in the consolation Clancy Cup tournament in the GTHL, can muster up more fire than this.

11:44 remaining and the Leafs’ Connor Brown rings one off the cross bar.  Still 1-1.  At least the close call woke up the crowd.  Somewhat.

Not long after, Tyler Bozak scores an unassisted goal to put Toronto up 2-1.  Frankly, the Flyers need to play with more fire, but you are who you are, as we were saying.  The 18,894 in attendance this evening would probably appreciate a better game, but no doubt most are content with the home team leading.

Heading to the third period, some stats to note.  The Maple Leafs are 23-1-9 when leading after two. The Flyers are 5-18-2 when trailing after two periods.  Make sense.

The Flyers have had their chances this period, as have Toronto.  But either the puck doesn’t get through the mass of humanity gathered in front if the net, or it just bounces harmlessly away at the last second. Missed it by that much.

Not on the power play.  With Brayden Schenn in the box for tripping, the Maple Leafs control the puck right off the face off, and Mitch Marner threads the needle to make it 3-1 Toronto, with time running out in the game.  His 16th goal in his rookie season, Marner is just plain fun to watch play hockey.  It’ll be interesting to watch the system slowly squeeze that joy out of him.

Outside of the first eight minutes of the game, this is not a Flyers team that looks like it should be in the playoffs.  Soon after that goal, Philadelphia goes on the power play, though the best chance com side the stick of Leafs’ forward Nikita Soshnikov, who hits the post behind Michal Neuvirth.

Win 2:37 remaining, Flyers’ head coach Dave Hakstol elected to pull the goalie, channeling his inner Patrick Roy. And right away, Gostisbehere finds the back of the net.

2:28 left. 3-2 Maple Leafs.  Well, that makes things interesting.

Neuvirth is back between the pipes after the goal.  And with 1:53 remaining, at the first opportunity, he returns to the bench.

With the extra man the Flyers exert a fair amount of pressure, but Toronto finally clears it and Nazim Kadri scores into the empty net with exactly one minute remaining.  Even the young Leafs can’t blow this one.  Toronto takes it 4-2, and with the two points, now have 74 overall, two behind Boston for third spot in the topsy turvy Atlantic Division.

Tyler Bozak is the first star, the Ghost is second, and Andersen third.

What to take from this game?  Toronto can certainly make the playoffs, but they’ll have to cut down on their patented late game breakdowns.  If the young Maple Leafs do make it into the post-season, there will be no pressure on them when they do. One would have to say they wouldn’t get all that far, but they could be a handful for a team in that first round.  Then again, if the Leafs finish third in the Atlantic Division, and play either the Senators or Canadiens, they could very well advance to the second round.

The Flyers?  Close but not close enough.  So, a retooling or a rebuild?  A whole bunch of both.  The playoffs don’t feel like the playoffs unless the Philadelphia Flyers are in there, upsetting hockey fans from coast to coast.

I don’t know about you, but I miss Bernie Parent.