Flyers' Cup drought defies odds

Posted: May 20, 2014

THERE WAS a great goaltender, and an underappreciated amount of skill, and it was all cradled lovingly in a clenched fist. Those were the Flyers who won the Stanley Cup, 40 years ago.

They won, and they won again, and they might have won a third consecutive time if the goaltender, Bernie Parent, had not been injured. And then, well, you know. The Parent injury, Leon Stickle, the Edmonton dynasty, the choking situation, the Lindros controversy, Michael Leighton apparently missing the lesson about acute angles in geometry class - to repeat, you know. The wonder of '74 is becoming faded by time and overshadowed by the fallow decades since - and by the odds-defying absurdity of it all.

Because, in the years since they won their two Cups, the Flyers have the highest regular-season winning percentage in the National Hockey League: Flyers, .572, Canadiens, .568, Bruins, .565. They have done that but they have not won again.

This chart is jaw-dropping. It lists the team with the highest winning percentage since 1975 in each of the four major sports, along with the number of championships those teams have won since.

NBA Lakers. . . 10

MLB Yankees. . . 7

NFL Steelers. . . 6

NHL Flyers. . . 0

While it is true that the correlation between regular-season winning and championships is less in hockey than the other sports - because of the whole hot-goaltender thing, among other reasons - this list remains stunning. The Canadiens, second to the Flyers, have won six times. The Bruins, next in line, won only once. The Bruins were essentially the same team as the Flyers with the same success since the mid-'70s - but they finally won a couple of years ago, and you can argue that they won because they had more shots at it with big defenseman Zdeno Chara than the Flyers did with Chris Pronger.

Regardless, the zero is still the zero. It just sits there, winking at you, testing your belief in the law of averages. Zero. It ought to be impossible, when you think about it. The Flyers should have won another one by accident.

They have the highest winning percentage in that time. They have played the most playoff games in that time. They have played more games in the conference finals/semifinals than anybody in that time. And the list goes on, as they say.

But no championships. Because of that, the memories seem mostly to be in black-and-white, even though they aren't: the skating of the Cup through a crowd of fans who had leapt onto the ice at the Spectrum; the gigantic parade, where the pictures of the crowds pushing up against the vehicles seem to dwarf even the massive numbers for the Phillies' parade in 2008; the crowds in general, because they were an integral part of the thing.

The connection between team and town and time was just about perfect on the one hand and just about unpredicted on the other hand. The NHL had been in the city for less than a decade, and the players were all Canadians, and the coach was this mysterious character - but it all worked, and the bond was forged, probably because a tough city felt validated somehow by this tough team.

So many of the 1974 players made their homes in this area after retiring that the thread tying them to the fans was never broken. It is one reason why the fans have remained so loyal - that and one other thing. The figures are not available, but along with the winning percentage and the playoff games and conference finals and the rest, the Flyers likely lead in another NHL category since 1975: money spent on salaries. If they aren't at the top, they're right there.

It is why players have always liked to come here, and still do. It is why fans have never abandoned this team, despite the disappointments. And if the Flyers' biggest sin has been impatience - and it has been - it is not exactly uncommon in the NHL, a league where dozens of players annually change teams near the trade deadline, more than any other sport.

But the salary cap has made it harder in recent years. Their financial advantage is not gone but it has been mitigated - and it shows in the standings. Also, the truth is that they still have not figured out the best way to play the game since the rules were changed following the 2004-05 lockout. The thing is obviously evolving, and changes a little every year, but the Flyers have become a below-average defensive team since the game was opened up - and defense still wins the Cup most years.

Some of that has been the goaltender, yes - but only some. In the 10 years before the rules were changed, the Flyers' average rank in goals against was sixth. In the 9 years since the rules changes, their average rank has been 19th. This season, they were 20th, when only a ton of third-period comebacks got them into the playoffs at all. The immediate future seems predicated now on a group of kid defensemen who might or might not be nearing NHL readiness.

Looking back 40 years, it seemed simpler somehow. But that's always true when you already know the ending.


On Twitter: @theidlerich


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