THE NOISE IN the Spectrum has faded (as has the Spectrum itself). The details of the play, the third-period goal that pushed the Flyers into Game 7 of the 1987 Stanley Cup finals, have become fuzzier with time. "It's 23 years now," J.J. Daigneault was saying yesterday. "Twenty-three years. And in that time, I would say that somebody reminds me of it at least once a week."
It was another Game 6, another era. As today's Flyers come home for their Game 6, with the prospect of elimination from the Stanley Cup chase again packed in their carry-ons, we can only wonder about the parallels. Who might score the game winner for the Flyers on Wednesday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, another win-or-die game at home? Who might trigger an ovation that people still talk about? Who might pull a Daigneault?
"When I think about it, I am very humble," he was saying, on the phone from his Connecticut home. "It isn't an individual sport. I only played eight or 10 games in the playoffs that year because I was hurt. I just happened to be the hero that night."
Truth be told, as an assistant coach for the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack, Daigneault does not pull for the Flyers anymore. Seeing as how the Wolf Pack is a Rangers affiliate, Daigneault would have been a measure happier if the Flyers had never begun this run in the first place, if they hadn't beaten the Rangers in that shootout on the final day of the regular season.
But in the last 8 weeks - yes, 8 weeks - Daigneault has seen enough of the Flyers to know that he is looking at something special. He is not in the predictions business, not exactly, but he knows what his eyes are telling him.
"The Flyers have already shown a lot of character so far," he said. "To come from behind by three games to none against Boston, to come from behind by 3-0 in that Game 7, it was a great accomplishment.
"When I look back on our '87 team, I always think that I was part of the hardest-working team that I saw in the 17 years I was in the league. Mike Keenan was the young and dynamic coach, and so was the team. We had a good mix of hard work and talent. When I look at this Flyers team, I see a lot of the same things.
"When I look back on it, they remind me of us," Daigneault said.
Then as now, the Flyers were underdogs in the finals - but that is where the comparison ends. In 1987, the opponent was the Edmonton Oilers, who were already mid-dynasty, led by Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. The Flyers' best player in '87 was goaltender Ron Hextall.
Trailing the series by 3-1, the Flyers overcame a 2-0 deficit in Game 5 in Edmonton to win. They again fell behind by 2-0 in Game 6 at the Spectrum. Lindsay Carson got the second-period goal that brought it back to 2-1, and then Brian Propp got the power-play goal with about 7 minutes left in the third period to tie it at 2-2.
Eighty-four seconds later, Daigneault happened.
"There's a funny story behind the goal," he said. "I'm a 21-year-old kid, and I suddenly find myself out on the ice with Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. That wasn't my matchup - I was probably the sixth defenseman. Mark Howe and Brad McCrimmon were supposed to be out against Gretzky, Brad Marsh and Kjell Samuelsson against Messier, and myself and Doug Crossman against the other guys. But here I am, going up the ice, and Gretzky jumps on.
"When that happens, I'm looking to get off. I was coming back to the bench and Mike Keenan is screaming at me, 'Stay out there.' So I did, and [late getting into the offensive zone] I skated right into a Jari Kurri turnover. I think it took a funny bounce, and I just came into it and took a hard slap shot."
All in one motion, through traffic, it got past Edmonton goaltender Grant Fuhr. To this day, a lot of people who were there remember it as the loudest they ever heard the Spectrum. Daigneault says that the Oilers' Kevin Lowe told him, " 'J.J., I never heard a building that loud.' He thought the roof was going to blow off. It was an incredible moment."
We all know that the Flyers ended up losing Game 7 in Edmonton in 1987. Somehow, the ultimate defeat does not diminish the memory of that Game 6. Twenty-three years later, the Flyers crave another such moment. A team that has fought off five match points to get here - four against the Bruins, plus that shootout against the Rangers in what amounted to a pre-playoff elimination game - needs two more.
They clearly have the ability. They also have the demeanor it takes to shake off their 7-4 loss to the Blackhawks in Game 5. Everyone expects a memorable night as the Flyers again fence with the fates. But in the end, someone is still going to have to make the memory. And, well, who?
Again, Daigneault is not in the predictions business. Still, he said yesterday what everybody in the hockey world is thinking. He said, "After watching the Flyers, I wouldn't be surprised if there was a Game 7 in this one."
But who will own the moment that matters most?
Who will be the J.J. Daigneault of a new generation? *
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