Hockey's Flyers, 'No. 1,' found they had to try harder

Move over, Rodney Dangerfield. The Philadelphia Flyers don't get no respect, either. All they did during the regular National Hockey League season was finish first -- six points ahead of Buffalo and seven points in front of the defending Stanley Cup champion, Montreal -- and in the process set a record by going 35 games in a row without a loss. They virtually put the championship on layaway before Christmas.

So were they clear favorites when the playoffs started this month? They weren't even fuzzy ones.

Most of the smart talk focused on Montreal, Buffalo, Boston, and the New York Islanders, with the Flyers lucky to get a passing mention.

"Obviously," says Coach Pat Quinn, "we have not convinced a lot of people how good we are. It would have been nice to be considered the team to beat. After all, we worked awfully hard for what we accomplished."

But Quinn can understand his team's low ranking in the popularity polls.

"When you look at it, maybe we weren't that convincing over the last month of the season. We only played .500 hockey. Maybe we were so far ahead we lost a little interest, and we had some defensemen hurt. Montreal came on strong and the Islanders jelled, and everybody forgot about us. At least we get the home-ice advantage through the playoffs for finishing first during the season."

So far in the playoffs the Flyers have needed no extra edge. They swept their first-round series against Edmonton in three games, then won the first three of their best-of-seven quarterfinal set against the New York Rangers before losing Sunday night in Madison Square Garden.

Maybe they'll finally start being accorded some of the respect they think a first place team deserves.

"You know what I think it is?," defenseman Jim Watson asks, not waiting for a reply. "I think other organizations and their fans still dislike us from our old roughhouse days, when we were the kind of team people liked to see lose. They let emotion get in the way of their judgment. They don't seem to realize how much our style has changed." How much the Flyers' style has changed is open to debate, but it has changed. They led the league in penalty minutes this season, so it isn't as if they have stopped being belligerent, but they don't fight as often as before and they have incorporated some of the European/Olympic approach.

Bobby Clarke, their veteran center, explains: "I heard Herb Brooks talk at a banquet not long ago about how he coached the US team to combine the North American and the European styles, and what he said was almost word for word what Pat told us at the beginning of the season. I think it's a major reason we got off to such a good start.

"We are playing a more freewheeling offense -- interchanging positions and generally being more creative -- but we have continued to play a disciplined checking game on defense. We have the best of both worlds, and the players enjoy the game much more this way. We have great scoring balance -- we didn't place anyone among the top 24 scorers, but we had seven men between 65 and 79 points."

Clarke was one of them, with 69 (Ken Linseman led the team with 79 while Reggie Leach was high in goals with 50). Clarke isn't scoring as many goals these days, but those he does score are meaningful. He got two in the first six playoff games, and both were "gamers," as the boys call them; they both won games.

The 30-year-old Clarke has traded in his captain's letter for an assistant coach's assignment, and his main responsibility would appear to be leading by spirited example on the ice.

"He remains the driving force on that team." says one of the Rangers. "He can do so many things. He makes the big plays, he checks all over the ice, he's always in your hair."

If there has been a salient difference between the Flyers and Rangers, it is speed and checking up the center. One consequence is that the Rangers have been unable to escape their defensive end with any consistency.

Says Quinn, "When you're busy trying to get out of your own end, you can't forecheck too well at the other end. Our good defense has hurt their defense. I have to give Clarkie a lot of the credit for that."

Wherever the Rangers have tried to go, Clarke and the other persistent Flyers have been in the way. The Rangers have looked slow and uncertain, but that is partly because the Flyers have made them look slow and uncertain.

On those infrequent occasions when the Rangers have broken free, rookie Philadelphia goaltender Pete Peeters usually has been ready with an acrobatic save. Worse yet for New York, he has rarely left a rebound lying around.

Youngsters like Peeters and explosive winger Brian Propp have meshed wonderfully with old pros like Clarke, and the Flyers show no discernible weakness. Now if they could just get some respect. . . .

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