The story began last summer in a Toronto convenience store, when Maple Leafs president Ken Dryden dropped in at around 11 p.m. for a few pints of ice cream and walked out with a goaltender. Dryden knew he needed the ice cream for milk shakes but wasn't sure he needed a goalie—he already had a decent one in Felix Potvin. That night in the store, though, he bumped into Don Meehan, Curtis Joseph's agent. Of course Joseph, a free agent, was going to cost a lot more than $2.99, but he wasn't just any Tom, Ben or Jerry, as he'd proved with his outstanding playoff work for the Edmonton Oilers during the previous two springs. But the Leafs needed a jolt (they finished with the NHL's seventh-worst record in 1997-98), so Dryden splurged, and within days he'd signed the 31-year-old Joseph to a four-year, $24 million contract. The moral: In convenience stores, it pays to supersize.
The Philadelphia Flyers will have all summer to ponder the meaning of going big or going home. The bitter twist to the Maple Leafs-Flyers first-round series, which Toronto won in six games with a 1-0 victory on Sunday, was that Joseph originally was hoping to sign with Philadelphia. Flyers president Bob Clarke, however, was looking elsewhere. Joseph is a master of the spectacular, but Philadelphia had lost its stomach for high-wire goaltender acts, such as those of Ron Hextall, Garth Snow and Sean Burke, who in recent years left a legacy of bad goals at the worst times. For a team longing for tranquillity, the easy choice was free agent John Vanbiesbrouck, late of the Florida Panthers, who is more serene than Khalil Gibran. Vanbiesbrouck was a human table-hockey goalie, a stand-up type who played angles and moved across the crease as if a metal rod were attached to his spine. He also had a portfolio—he carried the Panthers to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals, in which they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche. The Flyers' hope was that Vanbiesbrouck would make the routine saves and his teammates would do the rest. The difference was not so much the $2.5 million per season that Philadelphia saved by signing him over Joseph; it was the promise of peace and quiet.
So it was with a double scoop of irony that the Flyers' season ended loudly on Sunday. Owner Ed Snider heaped abuse on referee Terry Gregson, who had called forward John LeClair for an obvious elbow at 17:06 of the third period in a scoreless Game 6, a match that turned into a Toronto triumph when wing Sergei Berezin buried a power-play goal with 59.2 seconds left. In two separate dressing room rants Snider called Gregson a coward and insinuated that the Leafs got the call because Gregson is from Ontario. Snider, however, neglected to mention one thing: In the series as a whole the Flyers weren't jobbed, they were beaten—by a goalie they had snubbed, a player who has had more of an impact this season than anyone in the league other than the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jaromir Jagr.
In 1998-99 Joseph didn't score a goal, yet he turned Toronto into the NHL's highest-scoring team. "His effect was like Dominik Hasek's impact in Buffalo," Dryden says. "You can have a bunch of talented players, quite young, and maybe you can develop one or two at the same time, but a goalie like that allows you to develop four or six at the same time. The players become better, faster. Curtis allowed our younger players the freedom of mistakes. He permitted us to open up, to put pressure on the other team."
Vanbiesbrouck yielded only nine goals on 146 shots in the six games, but those numbers camouflage a subtle but significant breakdown. In each of the Flyers' three 2-1 losses, including the pivotal Game 5 overtime defeat in Toronto last Friday, the Leafs beat Vanbiesbrouck with weak, hurried backhands. Philly was undermined by chintzy goals: Steve Thomas's in Game 2, Mike Johnson's in Game 3 and Yanic Perreault's Game 5 sudden-death winner, which slithered past Vanbiesbrouck to the short side—BACKHANDED COMPLEMENTS, a Toronto Globe and Mail headline slyly noted. After Game 5, Flyers coach Roger Neilson was roasted like a campfire marshmallow for not shortening his bench in overtime (fourth-liners Sandy McCarthy and Mikael Andersson were on the ice for Perreault's goal), but the difference wasn't McCarthy's three overtime shifts versus Toronto roughneck Tie Domi's none; it was a sprawling save Joseph made on Rod Brind'Amour 2� minutes before Vanbiesbrouck yielded the winner. The primary issue regarding the Flyers' bench was that Eric Lindros wasn't on it.
If a 6'4", 231-pound man can be spectral, Lindros was. His face was whiter than French vanilla, his jawbone unusually prominent. After conditioning drills over the past couple of weeks, hockey's most imposing specimen would come off the ice gasping, unable to speak in anything more than a soft rasp. In the month since his right lung collapsed during a game in Nashville, causing him to lose three liters of blood and 18 pounds, he had regained half that weight. But his coordination was poor, and he studiously avoided contact to protect the angry incisions in his side from the surgery he underwent after the injury. If there was any pressure on him to return, Willis Reed-like, it was self-imposed. "Look, I'm a Toronto boy," Lindros said last week. "Do you think there'd be anything as great as going up there and scoring the winner in a seventh game?"
Lindros is one of the exceptional few who will never be measured by goals and assists but by Stanley Cups. Wayne Gretzky needed five NHL seasons and Mario Lemieux seven before leading their respective teams to championships. Next season will be Lindros's eighth, and he will be no closer to a Cup if Vanbiesbrouck, who will turn 36 during training camp, proves to be the wrong goalie, as last week's series suggested he might be. Clarke has scurried to correct his past mistakes: Of the 18 Flyers skaters who dressed for Game 6, only five played in the first-round disaster against the Buffalo Sabres last year. Philadelphia made a team-record 12 deals between training camp and the trading deadline, 13 if you count its addition of a second sports psychologist. The Flyers already had Joel Fish on hand, but this season Neilson has also used David Scott, a University of New Brunswick professor, to speak to the team.
The Flyers had a Kate Smith-God Bless America thing going with Scott—they had been 3-0 after the professor addressed the club on game day—but in Game 6 words finally failed the Flyers. In the end Snider was livid, LeClair was distraught, and Joseph, with 26 saves and his eighth career postseason shutout, was magnificent. For the Leafs, this was their ice-cream Sunday.