Hockey's Howe now is Mark, a defensive whiz of the Flyers

Mark Howe may have followed in the footsteps of a famous father, but he is not just a chip off the old block. On the contrary, the veteran Philadelphia Flyers defenseman is strictly his own man - even to the point of specializing in an entirely different aspect of the game. Gordie Howe, of course, is hockey's all-time leading scorer. But Mark, after spending some time as a forward, has carved out his niche at the other end of the ice, where he operates as perhaps the finest defenseman playing the game today.

Mark is the mainspring of the defense that has led the Philadelphia Flyers into the Wales Conference finals against the Montreal Canadiens. Edmonton, the best rested team left in the playoffs, faces heavy underdog Detroit for the Campbell Conference championship.

The winners of these best-of-seven-games series then meet for the Stanley Cup, held by Montreal.

The Flyers, who won the cup twice in the 1970s, have been the playoff flops of the '80s. Last year they were eliminated by the New York Rangers in the first round after finishing second to Edmonton overall during the regular season.

``We feel we have to redeem ourselves this year,'' says Howe. ``We were the youngest team in the league two years ago when we played 10 rookies. I'm the only regular over 30. We're a different team this time.''

The Flyers again finished second to Edmonton in the overall standings this season and have looked nearly impregnable in eliminating the New York Rangers and Islanders from the playoffs.

Howe, as usual, has been the pivotal figure. If he isn't the best defenseman around (Ray Bourque of Boston, Rod Langway of Washington, Paul Coffey of Edmonton, and Larry Robinson of Montreal also deserve consideration), he is certainly the fastest and most versatile.

Says Philadelphia coach, Mick Keenan: ``It is very comforting to know I can start with Mark when I write out my lineup. He's our leader, on the ice and in the locker room. I don't feel he gets enough credit. He's often the best player on the ice.''

The regular season plus-minus rankings back Keenan up, too, showing Howe second only to Edmonton's incomparable Wayne Gretzky in this key statistic based on goals scored while each player is on the ice. And happily, on a team known for its general belligerence, the 5 ft. 11 in., 180-lb. Howe is also a mannerly, sportsmanlike fellow who took only 37 penalty minutes this season.

Mark says the key to his play is adaptability, and a clear example came in Game 3 of the doggedly-fought Islander series. Howe gathered up the puck in his own end, accelerated explosively to center ice, then broke one of his forwards free with a deft lead pass. When the forward fumbled the puck charging in on the goalie, a hustling Howe collected it again and quickly snapped a shot into the upper right corner of the net for a decisive goal.

``Mark has several speeds and always seems to make the right play,'' says fellow Flyer defenseman Brad Marsh. ``He beats people with his speed, but he also knows when to pass the puck and when just to circle back and slow up the tempo. He sets the pace for us, particularly if we start to get a little rattled.''

Howe's speed enables him to become an extra attacker because he still can race back and cover his defensive territory. His shot from the point is low, accurate, and tailor-made for tip-ins and rebound goals. He could score more (15 goals and 43 assists this season) if he were not on such a defensive team.

The Flyers gave up just 3.03 goals a game this season. The one team that did better in this department is their playoff opponent, Montreal. It will be a wonder if anyone does much scoring this series.

Big Philadelphia goalie Ron Hextall benefits from playing behind a stalwart defense but is frequently outstanding when he needs to be.

``He should be rookie of the year with ease,'' lobbies Coach Keenan. ``He beat out Bob Froese for his job here, and Froese was the best in the league last year.''

Ron's father, like Mark Howe's, played in the NHL. His grandfather scored the winning goal the last time the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, in 1940.

Mark may not remember that bit of ancient esoterica, but he remembers Gordie putting chairs on the ice in Detroit and having his very young sons skate around them. Mark later played on the same professional line with his father in Hartford, the skating ability he developed as a forward obviously adding a special dimension to his defensive portfolio now.

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