How one goal changed the Devils and Flyers forever.
In many ways, the history of the Philadelphia Flyers franchise has been a tale of two halves.
The first half, beginning in 1967 and extending to the end of the 1980s, saw the team participate in six Stanley Cup Finals while forging their Broad Street Bullies identity and winning a pair of championships. That era gave way to an extreme dry spell in the early 1990s, albeit one that at least offered a ray of hope in Eric Lindros and a team being constructed around him in hopes of returning the Flyers to contender status.
The time finally arrived during the NHL’s lockout-shortened 1995 season, with the Flyers making a run to the Eastern Conference Finals. This was their chance to set the course of the franchise for years, perhaps decades, to come. There was only one problem, one that was dressed in black and red and came from up the Jersey Turnpike.
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The first four games of the 1995 East Finals between the Flyers and New Jersey Devils saw the road team win each contest, with the pivotal Game 5 taking place 25 years ago today at the Spectrum on June 11, 1995. Anybody could tell that the victor of that game would in all likelihood take the series between these two rising clubs, with the winner moving on to face the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings. They would likely meet their match at that point, but a Cup Final berth would do wonders for either the Flyers or the Devils. It was all on the line.
The teams played to a 2-2 deadlock through 59 minutes of Game 5, and it looked like overtime was assured. But that’s when Claude Lemieux delivered what could be the most painful goal ever allowed by the Flyers.
Gathering the puck in his own zone, Lemieux gained a head of steam as he crossed into the neutral zone. He was flying down the right wing, no Flyers near him as they all skated back to defend. Then, just as Lemieux got to the Flyers’ blueline, he unleashed a laser of a slapshot, low to the ice, and headed for the far corner of the net. Still, it was from well out, and surely Ron Hextall could easily fend it off. Except he didn’t, the shot found the net, and the Devils had a 3-2 lead with 45 seconds to play.
The Flyers would play another season in the Spectrum after that one, but the building basically died that day, at that specific moment.
By watching the goal and the replays, you can see that Hextall is not ready for the shot. He’s preparing to go down into his stance, but he never gets there, caught completely by surprise at Lemieux’s audacity to shoot from that far out. It was an unforgivable goal, though it’s not all on Hextall, as the rest of the team allowed Lemieux to have far too much space. Regardless of whose fault it was, the damage was most assuredly done, and the Flyers would never recover.
They’d lose that game, of course, then go down pretty meekly in a 4-2 loss two nights later. The series was over. The Devils, to everyone’s surprise, would go on to sweep the heavily favored Red Wings to capture the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. They’d add two more over the next eight seasons, mostly on the back of goaltender Martin Brodeur, a lockdown defensive unit, and a rotating cast of forwards who scored just barely enough to help the club eek out 2-1 wins and effectively kill high-scoring (and fun) hockey in the NHL.
They may have choked the life out of things, but you can’t really argue with three Cups. As for the Flyers, we’re all still waiting for the next one.
When these two teams met on that fateful Sunday at the Spectrum 25 years ago, you could feel it in the air. Fortune was about to smile on one of these teams, while the other would be on the losing side of history. The trajectories of two franchises were inexorably altered that day, one for better and one for worse.
The Devils became the club that developed a championship pedigree, while the Flyers took the first step in their identity of “good but not enough” that has plagued them for most of the last quarter-century.
When you sit down to consider how one series, one game, one goal had this effect on two franchises, it’s pretty mind-blowing. If Ron Hextall is ready for the shot, if Lemieux’s slapper sails just wide… the butterfly effect might have dictated multiple Stanley Cups for the Flyers, perhaps even beginning in 1995. But, as Flyers fans, all we can do is wait while we reflect on days like today and what might have been.