Bob McCammon, coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, stood in a drafty hallway outside the visitors' dressing room at Nassau Coliseum and barely glanced at the final statistics sheet before tucking it away.
His team had just lost, 9-2, to the New York Islanders, a team that had not beaten Philadelphia previously this season. McCammon was at a loss for a specific explanation.
"We had some really good chances during the second period--20 shots," he said, shaking his head. "Nine goals." McCammon started to say, "They played better against us tonight than they had all season," but before the sentence was complete, he grimaced slightly and said, "No they didn't. They weren't any better than they'd been. They're geared for the playoffs and we're taking it easy." He smiled. "Want to talk about the Capitals instead?"
A night later, McCammon's team lost again, 3-2, to Washington. Suddenly it seemed the Flyers, who had been steaming along at the top of the league throughout the season, really were taking it easy, even with the playoffs beginning in two weeks.
In their last 11 games, the Flyers are 4-7-0. Since the early February all-star break, Philadelphia has won 11 games, lost nine and tied once.
Still, the Flyers, with 100 points for the season, are only seven points behind Boston for the best overall record in the NHL.
"We had goals to reach during the season. Every team needs to set goals," McCammon said. "But we reached our goals early. Maybe too soon, and we've gotten kind of complacent. I'm a little concerned."
What his team's goals were McCammon would not reveal, but one area of concentration had to be the reduction of penalty minutes.
The team known as the Broad Street Bullies during the 1970s has never entirely shed that image, but it has cleaned up its act considerably. Last year the Flyers had nearly 1,000 more minutes in penalties at this stage of the season.
Coupled with cutting penalty minutes, McCammon worked with his team's penalty killing, which tops the league with an 83.3 percent efficiency.
The short-handed unit, in tandems of Mark Howe and Bobby Clarke; Brad Marsh and Miroslav Dvorak; Brad McCrimmon and (when healthy) Frank Bathe; Brian Propp and Mark Taylor, has given up 58 power play goals this season, far below last season's 102.
The penalty killers have also accounted for 14 goals, five of them by Howe, for third place in the league.
Philadelphia has seldom had an offensive threat on the blueline, but Howe puts it this way: "When that player gets past that one guy, well, then your team is on the power play."
McCammon has also skated four lines throughout the season. "By playing four lines, you get chances to rush the puck more," he said. "During the playoffs we'll go with three lines and five defensemen."
But it is Philadelphia's goaltending that has provided such a big edge this year, thanks to a pair of rookies in the nets. Pelle Lindbergh, has a goals-against average of just over 2.9 and played in the all-star game. He'd just as soon forget that night, however, when he was beaten seven times, four by Wayne Gretzky.
Bob Froese was called up from the Flyers' farm team in Maine on Jan. 7, a day after Lindbergh had suffered a wrist sprain against the Soviets. Froese played a night later, when the Flyers beat Hartford, 7-4, and played 12 more games before losing.
Froese (pronounced "froze") shut out the Islanders twice, the only goaltender to do so in successive games. His 2.52 goals-against average is second in the league.
Since Lindbergh's return on Feb. 5, McCammon has rotated the two, Froese playing nine times and Lindbergh eight.
McCammon has not said publicly which of the two he will utilize during the playoffs. "I have told the goalie who it's going to be, but I haven't told any others," he said.
As part of his preparation for the playoffs, in which the Flyers will face the New York Rangers in the opening round, McCammon has increased his club's off-ice training.
"The last few weeks especially, we've worked on upper body strength," he said. "You concentrate everything on the legs and you lose the all-over conditioning. We work with some weights, and it's paying off."
Assessing his club heading into the playoffs, McCammon said, "We've got good harmony on this team, both on the ice and in the locker room, and that's very important. Leadership from (Bobby) Clarke and (Darryl) Sittler." Clarke, at 33, is en route to one of his best seasons. "Sometimes he might skate tired, but he'll never show it," McCammon said.
Clarke appears rejuvenated this season, and, with 84 points, he is having one of his best seasons since his personal-best total of 119 during 1975-76.
A year ago, when he sat out 18 games with a broken foot, he got only 63 points. The previous season, he had 65 when he played with a cracked rib through the last 30 games of the schedule and two playoff rounds. He started swimming during the offseason to improve his conditioning. "It was boring, but something different," he said.
With Clarke injury-free, Sittler skating toward what could be his best season (he has 41 goals, Howe an offensive-defensive strength, McCammon should have few complaints going into the postseason.
"We've had two young goalies playing well all year, and yes, Howe has played well," he said. "But when you have goals and reach them early, who knows? Maybe next time we should set our goals higher."