PHILADELPHIA -- Although Pete Peeters's age has caught up with the number on his back (33), the much-traveled and much-maligned goaltender is playing like the prodigal son who led the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup final in his rookie season 11 years ago.
Combining excellent foot speed with his encyclopedic knowledge of angles, Peeters has kept the Flyers moving forward in the absence of injury-plagued Ron Hextall and Ken Wregget.
Since he was thrown into emergency duty in Toronto Nov. 4, Peeters has compiled a 4-3-1 record with a 2.44 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage. More remarkable, though, has been his performance during a recent stretch that saw the Flyers play six games in nine days.
Peeters allowed only 10 goals in the six games and in three straight he was the No. 1 star -- a 2-0 shutout of Vancouver, a 1-1 tie against the New York Rangers and a 4-1 victory over Montreal. Peeters lost the last two games of that ordeal over the weekend to New Jersey, but he still was sharp. The fault lay with tired teammates who managed only three shots in the third period Saturday and just two in the third on Sunday.
"We had an empty gas tank," said Flyers Coach Paul Holmgren. "We're a tired hockey club physically and mentally. . . . But Pete seems to be getting better and better. As long as he keeps going, we're not going to worry about getting Hextall or Wregget back in there. Pete will play as long as he's hot."
The rejuvenation of Peeters, written off by virtually everyone after a 1-13-5 record followed by offseason elbow surgery, borders on the miraculous. In fact, the most likely person to seek out for an explanation is Father John Casey, the priest-writer-statistician who sometimes receives unwarranted credit when the Flyers outdo themselves.
"It's the pads," Casey said. "That's the only possible explanation for the way he's moving out there. It's remarkable how well he's playing, when a lot of people thought he'd never play again."
Peeters and Jeff Russell, a representative for Aeroflex in Connecticut, worked together to design a pair of synthetic pads that are inclined toward the inside to give better coverage of the "five-hole" between a goalie's legs. Despite the change in traditional construction, the pads were adjudged by supervisor of officials John D'Amico to be within the 12-inch width specifications.
"I'd always wanted to design pads to my own specifications," said Peeters.
"They're great. I can take them apart in five minutes and put them back together. With the old ones, you couldn't do that. And the synthetic material doesn't absorb water. With the deer hair, your legs would feel heavy late in a game from the added water."
Another person with some answers about Peeters is Warren Strelow, now New Jersey's goaltender coach. Strelow and Peeters worked together closely during Peeters's four seasons in Washington, before they became fall guys when the Capitals were eliminated by the Flyers in the 1989 playoffs.
For those who don't remember, a weary Peeters gave up some bad goals in the fifth and sixth games of the Patrick Division semifinal series. The Capitals lost and Strelow was fired.
Peeters, offered a termination contract because the Capitals would not give him a year's extension, took the opportunity to sign a three-year deal with the Flyers, a move many felt then-Flyers general manager Bob Clarke had contrived just to bedevil Washington.
"Pete is playing great right now," Strelow said. "He works hard, he doesn't complain, and every night he's in there he gives you a chance to win. Talk about his work habits -- after the elbow surgery, he couldn't hold a stick, but he was out on the ice anyway. That's why he's moving his legs better than he ever has."
Although Peeters had no idea whether he would play again, he worked hard during the summer. Perhaps only he could have imagined that Hextall and Wregget both would be struck down by injuries, just as they were last year.
"I'm sure people just looked at that 1-13-5 record and said, 'He's washed up,' " Peeters said. "But, number one, I played the whole year injured. And, number two, I looked at tapes of all the games I played and there were only two games where I felt I caused the team to lose. A lot of games I felt were good to excellent.
"I had to get the surgery on my elbow, then when I came back it was incredible how the swelling wouldn't come out of the elbow. I couldn't hold a goalie stick, but when I was home in Edmonton I went out with all my gear except the stick. I worked out with a friend's midget triple-A team."
Peeters had two years left on his contract, but he wasn't playing and readily accepted assignment to Hershey in the American Hockey League. After two games there -- he allowed eight goals in one start -- Peeters was recalled Nov. 4. Wregget suffered a hip flexor in Toronto, and Peeters replaced him for what may be some time.
"I'm just happy to get some playing time in," Peeters said. "I do feel good out there and I think I'm at the top of my game. But my future even now is uncertain. We still have three very good goaltenders. I'm just going to enjoy it and see what develops."