PHILADELPHIA -- Objectively speaking, the Philadelphia Flyers have always been a hockey team easy to dislike. In fact, if a concession wasn't made to this being the season of charity, one might say despise or even hate might be a more appropriate word.
It goes back a long way, to the days of Bobby Clarke and the Broad Street Bullies, circa mid-'70s. The pesty and sneaky Clarke would get something started and be across the state line by the time the gloves hit the ice. They were good and they let you know about it, not only winning games but most of the fights, too.
The thing is, though, the Patrick Division just hasn't been the same the last two years when Philly missed the playoffs, and this season when it came stumbling out of the gate (0-3-1) and looked like a sure tail-ender again.
Painful to admit, observers from New York, over the river to New Jersey, across the turnpike to Pittsburgh and down to Washington probably missed the belligerence that seems an integral part of all Philadelphia teams (and their fans).
Therefore, it's with moderate joy we report that the Flyers are back. Not necessarily in the thick of things just yet, but definitely a team not to be trifled with.
It was less than three weeks ago when the Washington Capitals invaded the Spectrum to play the Flyers just hours after they had unloaded Paul Holmgren as coach in favor of career minor-league coach and scout Bill Dineen.
The team was 0-6-1 entering the game and, in short order, it was 0-7-1. "I can't believe some of the things I saw going on in our [defensive] end," said Dineen.
OK, move ahead several days and games to yesterday, to the Spectrum and the Caps in town again. Beating Washington in overtime, 4-3, yesterday means the Flyers have been beaten just once in their last nine games (4-1-4).
That defense so shoddy the coach could scarcely believe it is formidable again. Forget a 6-3 loss to the Rangers the other night and, in the other eight games, Philly is allowing just two goals per game.
It was pretty well agreed in the Flyers' locker room yesterday that this win over the division-leading Caps was the biggest of the campaign. It gave the club its first three-game win streak and it was accomplished after a 3-0 victory over the North Stars in Minnesota Saturday night.
"We brought problems on ourselves with turnovers and bad decisions," said Capitals coach Terry Murray. Still, he couldn't conceal his admiration of the pluck shown by the team he once played for.
"The Flyers have always been a hard-working team. That ethic is there. And now the players are giving it a little bit extra for a new coach because they're all looking to get more ice time," he said.
The Caps scored early (Sylvain Cote, No. 3) in the first period, but hit the dressing room trailing, 2-1. Midway in the second period, Randy Burridge tied it with his 13th goal, "and we were playing well," noted Murray, "then they got a lucky goal."
Midway in the third period, Rod Brind'Amour's shot "banged off the [crossbar] pipe, hit my shoulder and fell in the goal," said Washington goalie Don Beaupre. "Yeah, it was lucky."
Philadelphia looked home free until inside the last minute, Beaupre departed the goal, a sixth attacker came on for the Caps and they tied the game at 3 on a goal by Kelly Miller (7) out of a pile in front of the Philly net.
"I thought it might dishearten them," said Beaupre.
"They had to be fatigued what with playing the night before and not getting home until after 2 o'clock and checking into a hotel," said Murray. "But once they stayed in it so long, they forgot about being tired."
"We're maturing," said Dineen, who admitted he felt like a guy fresh in from Mars calling the shots from behind the bench against the Caps a few weeks ago only to turn that around and have the Caps hustling to get favored matchups all game yesterday.
"A sure sign of maturity," he continued, "is getting a strong third period when you'reprotecting a lead. We lost a win in Chicago breaking down, but last [Saturday] night, we were real solid."
They battled the Caps evenly until the last minute, shrugged at the tie, then charged down ice after about a minute of overtime and won it on Brad Jones' fifth goal off a rebound.
"We should have jumped on them early; you don't like to give away points like that," said Beaupre.
Considering how the Flyers had played under adverse conditions and the fact his club had forced overtime with a score in the last minute of regulation, Murray mused, "it would have been nice to get a point [tie] out of it."
Washington has a practice -- "we've got some things to work on," said the coach -- then two days off for Christmas before playing division foes the Rangers, Pittsburgh and New Jersey in a stretch of four days beginning Thursday.
The Caps have been terrific through their first 36 games (24-11-1), but the Rangers, Penguins and Devils all are banging out victories, too, and here come the Flyers.
Just like the good ol' days in the Patrick.