The puck stops here. A goaltender is the last bastion of defense on a hockey team any time. During the playoffs, he usually is the difference between winning and not.
Goalies like Philadephia's Pelle Lindbergh, Edmonton's Grant Fuhr, Chicago's Murray Bannerman, and Quebec's Mario ``Goose'' Gosselin probably will have the most to say about which two teams advance from the Stanley Cup semifinals to the championship round (each best-of-seven series is currently tied 2-2 with the fifth games coming up tonight in Quebec and Edmonton). The hot goalie, facing down one scorching shot after another, can take his team into the history books.
The Flyers' Lindbergh has been the hottest of the hot so far. In 12 postseason games he has recorded two shutouts (the playoff record is four) and allowed an average of just over 2.5 goals per game. His fine play was a major factor in Philadelphia's victory over the powerful New York Islanders, and he has played big games in his team's two victories over Quebec as well as in a tough 2-1 overtime loss.
Those statistics are particularly gratifying to the long-haired, 25-year-old Swede because until this spring he was typecast as a poor playoff goalie, less effective under the extra intensity.
Two years ago against the Rangers in the opening round, he was beaten for 18 goals and the Flyers were eliminated. Last year he had his difficulties again when Washington swept the Flyers in the first round.
Lindbergh went home to Stockholm for the summer to reflect on his situation and relax on his power boat. He came to training camp last fall with new enthusiasm and an old style.
``When things are going badly,'' he says, ``everyone tries to help you. You try too many different things. I decided to stop listening to all that advice and go back to the way I'd always played.''
His old way isn't classy, but it's successful.
``I flop more now and rely on my quickness rather than standing up like Jacques Plante or Bernie Parent. It's best for me. I'm only 5 ft. 9 in. tall.'' Parent, who tended the Flyer goal for 10 years, has been Lindbergh's hero since the latter's youth hockey years. ``He's the guy I want to be like, and the Flyers were my favorite team,'' Lindbergh recalled.
He started playing hockey at the determined old age of four, wearing cumbersome goalie pads from the start.
``I was the youngest kid in the neighborhood, so if I wanted to play with the older kids I had to play goal. I didn't mind. I was the only one who wasn't afraid to play the position.''
The overcoming of fear is an integral part of a goalie's job description. Ken Dryden, the great and articulate Montreal goalie, wrote revealingly of the goaltender's lonely and threatened lot.
``When I see an opposing player draw back his stick to shoot,'' Dryden says, ``at the critical moment when my concentration must turn to commitment, my body stiffens, my eyes widen and go sightless, my head lifts in the air, turning imperceptibly to the right, as if away from the puck and I bail out, leaving an empty body behind to cover the net. I yell at myself as others might (``you children''). I tell myself reasonably, rationally that lifting my head, blanking my eyes, can only put me in greater danger; but I don't listen.''
Lindbergh, the son of a retired shipyard worker, saw his boyhood dream become walking reality when the Flyers picked him in the second round of the 1978 entry draft. He held off, though, in order to play in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, where his outstanding netminding helped Sweden to the bronze medal.
It was Sweden, of course, which almost spoiled the US ``Miracle on Ice'' before it got under way when the teams met in the preliminary round. The Swedes led for most of that contest and were still on top 2-1 in the final minute when the desperate Americans pulled their own goaltender for an extra attacker and scored on Bill Baker's blast from the blue line with just 27 seconds remaining.
Lindbergh failed to stop that shot but he didn't miss too many others as Sweden won all the rest of its games in the preliminary round and actually took first place in its division on the basis of goal differential. That's why the United States had to play the Soviet Union in the semifinals while Sweden got the easier game against Finland, but the historic US victory plus the results of the rest of the round left the Americans with the gold medal and the USSR with the silver, relegating Sweden to the bronze.
After Lake Placid, Lindbergh signed a National Hockey League contract with Philadelphia. Sweden, which ranks him second only to Bjorn Borg among its sports idols, rejoiced and wished him well. He even played a major role in a popular Swedish movie.
Pelle spent a year with the Flyers' main farm team, then became their main goalie and performed well the following season, before losing his edge last year.
``I lost my confidence,'' he says. ``I was terrible. But it makes this year that much more enjoyable. It's nice to get all this attention, and I don't mind it at all.''
During the regular season Lindbergh led the league in victories and games played, was second in percentage of saves, and was third in goals against average.
``He's done more for us this year than anyone else,'' says injured star forward Tim Kerr. ``He gets us going.''
The puck stops here.