Friday, December 27, 2013

Around the Rink: Everything you always wanted to know about the Flyers on the Holiday Road, but were afraid to ask

Rick MacLeish in action and Haaaarold Snepsts in repose
by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

Later tomorrow evening, the Flyers will hit the ice at Rexall Place against Edmonton to start a six-game holiday road trip which will take the team into calendar year 2014.

It's the first time in three years that the Orange and Black will have a prolonged road swing which takes them into the Pacific Time Zone, and believe it or not, will mark the first time since 1998 turned to 1999 that the three Western Canadian clubs -- the Oilers, Flames and Canucks -- will be featured on a single sojourn between Christmas and New Year's.

Despite the fact that the Kings began play in 1967 and the Canucks in 1970, the original Western road swing as most fans know it began in 1972, when Fred Shero guided his pre-Cup champion team on a trip which included Vancouver, California and Los Angeles in the midst of a six-game run. Those three teams were included in the 1974-75 schedule (Jan. 1-5), but the long road trip which included west coast clubs in both the US and Canada that bridged both years in a given season didn't return until the Flames relocated from Atlanta to Alberta, setting up a potential doubleheader.

The 1980-81 season kicked off a succession of holiday trips over the next two decades where Flyers teams would have some combination of Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and LA included. The NHL brain trust first hit the quinella from December 28, 1984-January 3, 1985, giving Mike Keenan's first Philadelphia squad a crack at, in order, the Canucks, Kings, Oilers and Flames. On that trip, the Flyers finished 3-1-0, losing only in Calgary in the second of back-to-back.

It happened again the next season, another 3-1 clip with the two Alberta games interrupted by an odd three-day break after B2B in Vancouver and Calgary -- another set of scheduled anomalies which made these road trips a bit more difficult to navigate.

Two years later, the Canadian portion of the holiday trip brought a screeching halt to a 14-game unbeaten streak which pulled the Flyers from the depths of the Patrick Division to the top of the heap. Coming into a December 30 game at Northlands Coliseum, the Flyers were 12-0-2 and looking to erase the memory of losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals seven months later. The reality was a blistering 6-0 defeat, and the next night, New Year's Eve in Calgary, was a 5-4 loss where the visitors lost on a power-play goal by Gary Suter with eight seconds left before overtime.

As the new decade of the 90s dawned, the Alberta double was interrupted by games in Vancouver and LA, an even rarer quirk of scheduling in the middle of a seven-game trip which happened to be the start of a then-franchise-record 10-game winless streak that defined a season which began a five-year run out of the playoffs.

With the dawning of the newest era of expansion, a second team in California arose in San Jose, and the Sharks were featured in holiday trips during both 1991 and 1992 before not showing up until back-to-back Silicon Valley placements in 1996 and '97. Philly managed to win all but the first meeting, in typical fashion for the era when even expansion teams were scoring points on home ice against the once-feared opponent.

Western Canada came back around as a feature in 1997-98 with another rare Canadian run of Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Ottawa to kick off a seven-game trip and in the final Prairie Run mentioned above, was part of a 15-game unbeaten string which sent Roger Neilson's club to the top of the Eastern Conference standings right after Bob Clarke played Indian giver with Chris Gratton and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

More recent seasons which contained the same long-distance road games this time of year tended to include Colorado, and all three California-based franchises. The Granddaddy of all Road Trips occurred in 2005-06, an 11-game suicide course which only managed to escape the Eastern Time Zone for a single matchup with Chicago.

Beaten like an Alberta Liberal...

In the 33 seasons since the Oilers and Flames have occupied the same Canadian province, only one Flyers team -- the 1996-97 club which rolled to 17 games without a loss (14-0-3) in December and January -- has ever completed the Alberta sweep, whether the games were scheduled consecutively or simply included on the same trip. The full results are as follows:

12/27/80 at Calgary (L 1-2)
12/28/80 at Edmonton (W 2-1)

12/28/81 at Calgary (W 7-4)
12/30/81 at Edmonton (L 5-7; Wayne Gretzky scores five goals to reach 50 in 39 games)

1/2/85 at Edmonton (W 5-2)
1/3/85 at Calgary (L 3-4)

12/28/85 at Calgary (W 6-5)
12/31/85 at Edmonton (L 3-4; Gretzky nets a hat trick as Oilers erase 2-0 first-period deficit)

12/30/87 at Edmonton (L 0-6)
12/31/87 at Calgary (L 4-5)

12/27/89 at Edmonton (L 1-2)
1/2/90 at Calgary (T 4-4)

1/2/93 at Calgary (L 3-7)
1/3/93 at Edmonton (T 2-2)

12/27/95 at Edmonton (L 2-3)
12/29/95 at Calgary (W 3-2)

12/27/96 at Edmonton (W 6-4)
12/29/96 at Calgary (W 4-2)

12/27/97 at Calgary (L 2-5)
12/30/97 at Edmonton (W 3-1)

12/29/98 at Calgary (W 4-3 OT; Eric Lindros left game with concussion, Valeri Zelepukin with OT winner)
1/3/99 at Edmonton (T 3-3)

Since then, additional expansion, constant tinkering with the master schedule which included de-emphasis on inter-conference matchups, multiple lockouts and the inclusion of the Flyers into multiple Winter Classics has deprived school kids, late-night workers and holiday revelers alike of their "staying up as late as possible to catch a glimpse of hockey in the wee hours."

The most successful road trip which included the two major end-of-year celebrations had little to do with Canadian teams.

Under Bob McCammon in 1982-83, the Cooperall-clad club went 6-for-6 to kick off what was eventually a 10-game win streak which vaulted the Flyers past the three-time defending champion New York Islanders to the penthouse of the Patrick. They toppled New Jersey, Washington, Detroit, Calgary, St. Louis and Chicago in succession, prompting future Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler to quip "I never won six games in a row in my life" after the run was completed. 

Other successful road trips have gone as follows:

1996-97: 4-0-2 (Chicago, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, San Jose, Colorado)
1998-99: 4-0-2 (Boston, Chicago, San Jose, Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton)
1979-80: 4-1-1 (Hartford, Winnipeg, Colorado, NY Rangers, Buffalo, Minnesota)
1984-85: 4-2-0 (Washington, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Edmonton, Calgary, St. Louis)
1992-93: 2-1-2 (Washington, San Jose, Los Angeles, Calgary, Edmonton)

Breaking out the hats and hooters..

When the Flyers arrive in Calgary on the last day of 2013, it will be their first New Year's Eve game at the Saddledome since their only other one there, the aforementioned last-second loss to the eventual Smythe Division winners in 1987.

Despite playing on December 31 just twice in their first 17 years, a burst of 11 such games followed in the next 17 seasons, all but three of those in one of the three aforementioned Western Canadian locales.

Between 1995 and 2001, the Flyers were scheduled to play in Vancouver five times, with the visitors winning four times and tying once. 

The first game, on 12/31/85, saw #99 fuel a comeback with one of his zillion hat tricks. Catch Pastor Bob Froese basically give him one of the goals in the second period. Edmonton's victory snapped a nine-game winless streak (0-8-1) against the Flyers which stretched back to 1982 and was yet another sign post of the emerging dynasty.

In 1988 and 1990, the road trip took weird turns to the North and the Orange and Black split a pair in Buffalo, winning in the former and losing in the latter.

The Flyers and Bruins played one of their two seasonal neutral-site games in, of all places, Minneapolis in 1993, with the "visiting" Philadelphians getting behind 3-0 and then mounting an unbelievable comeback in the final 25-plus minutes of regulation on goals from Lindros, Mikael Renberg, Rod Brind'Amour and Mark Recchi.

Two years later, the string of games with the Canucks commenced with the first contest inside what was the new GM Place. Philly blew leads of 3-1 and 5-2 before Vancouver pulled out a late (but exciting for them) tie.

In 1997, we recall the infamous brawl-filled 8-0 blowout against the Mark Messier-captained Orca-clad Canucks, and the following season, it was a 6-2 victory which was a glimpse of life to come without the concussed Big E. Simon Gagne won the final NYE in British Columbia with a goal in the final seconds in 2001, and that was the last time the schedule makers provided a Canadian New Year until this season.

The Washington Capitals took a 4-3 decision in DC in 2005, thus far the only time the Flyers have seen a Dec. 31 game end in a shootout, and three years ago, Anaheim welcomed our team back to the West Coast with a 5-2 defeat.

Overall, the Flyers carry an 8-5-2-1 record on the 365th day of the calendar year and look to improve upon that in Calgary four days from now.

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