PHILADELPHIA — Exactly 10 years ago Saturday, Philadelphia Flyer goaltender Ron Hextall gave one of the most valiant performances of his career, losing the decisive game of the Stanley Cup finals but affirming his worthiness as the most valuable player in the playoffs.
Back in the finals after a decade-long wait, Hextall was the most vulnerable player in the Detroit Red Wings' 4-2 victory in the series opener.
Deserted by his teammates after their neutral-zone turnovers led to half a dozen outnumbered rushes for the Red Wings, Hextall gave up goals to pluggers Kirk Maltby and Joe Kocur on Detroit's first five shots Saturday. And after the Flyers cut their deficit to 3-2 with 2:49 left in the second period on a shot by John LeClair that skipped between Mike Vernon's legs, Hextall gave up a 60-foot goal by Steve Yzerman 56 seconds into the third period that quieted the crowd of 20,291 at the CoreStates Center.
"That last goal is a play that we have to have," Flyer Coach Terry Murray said. "We've got to have those stops."
Because they didn't get those big stops, the Red Wings got off to a good start. They've already won one more game than in their previous appearance in the finals, in 1995, when they had the NHL's best regular-season record but were swept by the New Jersey Devils. They also now have history on their side: since the best-of-seven format was implemented in 1939, 46 of 58 teams that won Game 1 (79.3%) have won the Cup.
"It's OK, I suppose," Yzerman said of his first victory in the finals. "It was a decent start, but we're just getting started. I think our play has definitely gotten stronger as the playoffs have gone on. The guys have gotten into it more and the whole team is playing well."
Said Murray: "That's as poor as we've played in a month and a half. We didn't let our instincts flow. We made cross-ice passes we normally don't make and turned it over too much."
That was especially true in the first period. Maltby and Kris Draper capitalized on a turnover by Eric Lindros in the neutral zone to create Detroit's first goal, a short-hander at 6:38 that Maltby lifted over Hextall to finish off a two-on-one. The Flyers tied the score at 7:37, when Rod Brind'Amour batted in the rebound of a shot by Lindros, but the Red Wings jumped on another Flyer mistake to take a 2-1 lead.
Defenseman Kjell Samuelsson made a perfect pass to Kocur in the Flyers' zone to set up that chance, giving Kocur a free shot that even the ham-handed winger couldn't miss. "You can't do plays like that in the first exhibition game," Samuelsson said. "You can't do plays like that in the summer league."
Maybe that's how Kocur was able to anticipate it, because he was playing in a recreational league in the Detroit suburbs when the Red Wings signed him in December. His reaction when the red light went on, he said, "was more shock than elation."
Another two-on-one break, this one begun when Sergei Fedorov beat Lindros on a faceoff in the Detroit zone, led to the Red Wings' third goal. Larry Murphy, acquired by the Red Wings shortly before the trading deadline, sent the puck around the right-wing boards and caught up with it as players jostled for possession. When the puck popped loose, he managed to chip it up to Fedorov and chugged up ice beside the speedy center, who rifled the puck past Hextall on the glove side at 11:41 of the second period.
"Sergei made the right play, obviously, by hanging onto it and shooting," Murphy joked.
The Flyers tested Vernon several times before LeClair took a cross-ice pass from Mikael Renberg and flicked the puck between Vernon's pads at 17:11, gaining confidence as they went into the locker room for the second intermission. "We had some good things going. We had some momentum there," Murray said. "Then we gave up a real soft goal."
That goal was by Yzerman, a stoppable goal that wasn't stopped.
"I offer no excuses," Hextall said. "I didn't see it at all but it was far enough out that I should have stopped it. . . . They're a darn good team. It's hard before a series to have a barometer on how you match up with a team like that because we play them so little [twice, a loss and a tie].
"It was a combination of us not playing as well as we can and them playing well. We've got to play a lot better."
The Red Wings, meanwhile, remained calm. Asked if he had a sense his team was on a roll after winning for the 11th time in 13 playoff games, Detroit Coach Scotty Bowman shook his head negatively. "I'll get more of a sense," he said, "if we win three more games."
* TRADING PLACES
Detroit's Larry Murphy is booed again, but this time he's wearing the right uniform. C13