The Philadelphia Flyers have made the experts look foolish by reaching the Stanley Cup final against Edmonton, and Coach Mike Keenan admitted today that he never would have foreseen such an accomplishment in September, either.
"I didn't know what to expect when the season started, but I certainly didn't expect to be in the finals," Keenan said. "As the season went on, though, our goals changed and progressed. We had a very young hockey club and we were never really sure how we'd respond. Frequently during the season there were signs of bending, but we never reached the breaking stage."
The Flyers, No. 1 during the regular season, captured the Prince of Wales Conference championship by defeating Quebec in six games despite injuries to Tim Kerr, Brad McCrimmon and Dave Poulin.
Poulin was able to return after missing two games and most of a third. It was his short-handed goal, with Quebec skating at a two-man advantage, that demoralized the Nordiques in the 3-0 finale here Thursday.
"We started the season with a lot of spirit and emotion, but we had to stop and look at ourselves after we lost four in a row in early December," Poulin said. "When you're at the top of the league, everybody's going for you, and we wondered like everybody else whether we were this good.
"When we beat Washington back to back (in early March), then we were able to say and believe it, 'We're a pretty good hockey team.' "
Asked how a young team could handle playoff pressure so well, Poulin replied, "Mike Keenan. That's the answer to a lot of questions about our success. Mike has instilled discipline in the kids and maybe he's forced the experience on them. Experience isn't necessarily age."
Goaltender Pelle Lindbergh, who earned his third playoff shutout in Thursday's game, came in for his share of praise, although obviously he did not have a tough night, with his teammates limiting Quebec to 15 shots. "The Flyers are well-coached and they have a good disciplined team," said Quebec Coach Michel Bergeron. "Most important, they have good goaltending, the best goalie in the league in Lindbergh."
The Swedish media were well represented at the series, obviously with Lindbergh the principal object of attention. A photograph of a sign hanging in the Spectrum that said "Pelle for President" was prominently displayed on the front page of a Stockholm newspaper.
Presumably, the media glare will reach annoying stages during the final series, which opens here on Tuesday. It will be interesting to see how the Flyers react, since only one, winger Brian Propp, has participated in a Stanley Cup final before.
Bergeron, after criticizing the Flyers' tactics during the series, was full of praise afterward, saying, "They've got a chance to win the Cup. They've got a real good hockey team. Bobby Clarke and Mike Keenan, in their first year as general manager and coach, have done a great, great job."