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The best Flyers team to not win a Stanley Cup: the case for 1986-87

The ‘86-87 Flyers pushed Gretzky’s Oilers to the brink with a seven-game battle in the Cup Final.

Flyers Vs. Oilers Photo Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

The question of which Philadelphia Flyers team was the best to not win a Stanley Cup is an interesting one, because there have been many years that the team has come within a game or two of reaching – or winning – hockey’s ultimate prize.

Some of the more recent teams stick out in our minds, particularly the 2009-10 team that was the most recent to reach the Stanley Cup Final, as Drew explained on Tuesday. The last team before that to reach the Cup Final had a strong squad of their own with the Legion of Doom leading the way in the 1996-97 final, as Mike outlined on Monday. On Wednesday, Craig dove into the 2003-04 team that was one win away (against the eventual champions) from reaching the Cup Final.

While all of those teams were great in their own right, there are a handful of other teams that deserve some recognition. Most fans either point to the recent teams simply due to the fact that those are the teams they grew up watching and helped them fall in love with the Flyers. Then there are the Stanley Cup teams in 1974 and 1975 that we all know the history and glory of. However, the 1980s provided some of the best teams in Flyers history despite not bringing home a Cup.

The Flyers made the playoffs in all 10 seasons in the ‘80s, reaching the Stanley Cup Final three times in total. The 1979-80 team has the for the longest unbeaten streak in major professional sports at 35 games, but they ran into the beginning of the New York Islanders dynasty. When they finally beat the Islanders in the playoffs in 1985 en route to the Stanley Cup Final, they fell at the hands of another dynasty: the Edmonton Oilers.

In 1987 they met up with the Edmonton Oilers once again in the Stanley Cup Final, and they managed to push one of the best teams in the history of the NHL to the brink. The series went seven long games without the Flyers’ best player before the Oilers won their third Cup in four years in the midst of five Cups in seven seasons, and their second against the Flyers in just three years.

Being able to go toe-to-toe against Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers is what makes the 1986-87 team the best Flyers team to not win a Stanley Cup.

Here is a quick look at the 1986-87 roster:

Tim Kerr led the way with a deep group of forwards including Peter Zezel, Dave Poulin, and Brian Propp. Mark Howe anchored a defense with Doug Crossman, Brad McCrimmon, and Brad Marsh.

Ron Hextall was a huge part of the Flyers’ success the entire year. He put up one of the best performances the Flyers have seen in net in just his rookie year. He won the Vezina Trophy, placed second for the Calder and ninth for the Hart.

His save percentage of .902 was 22 points better than the league average (.880), which resulted in a goals saved above average (GSAA) of 41.83. That is the 34th best single-season GSAA in NHL history. For reference, Bob Sauve had the second-best GSAA in the 1986-87 season with 20.91, and the GSAA leader this season is Tuukka Rask (22.51).

The Flyers came out red-hot in the 1986-87 season with rookie goaltender Ron Hextall taking the reins in net. They started the season with six straight wins en route to an 8-2-0 record in the month of October. That strong play continued into November, when they went 9-2-2 in the month for a 17-4-2 record to start the season. Hextall played a big part in that, winning the NHL Rookie of the Month for both October and November.

The Flyers hit a bit of a rough patch at the end of December on that dreaded Disney on Ice trip, losing four straight on the road to end the calendar year. But they got back from the trip and got back to their winning ways, starting January with a 6-0-1 record to boost them to the top of the NHL with 65 points (31-11-3), three ahead of the Oilers.

That winning streak was halted by the Islanders in a game that featured a bench-clearing brawl, which was something that these Flyers weren’t afraid of.

Then the Flyers hit a rut. They finished the season just 15-15-5 after that partially due to injuries, but also partially due to poor play.

Brian Propp, who was on pace for a career year, suffered a serious knee injury in December and was out for two months. Ilkka Sinisalo, who was coming off of back-to-back 70-point seasons and was on pace for another strong year, also missed time from December to February. Norris Trophy runner-up Mark Howe and Ron Sutter also battled injuries throughout the year.

The Flyers went just 3-5-1 in February and finished the season with a blowout loss against the Islanders.

But the playoffs were a different story.

Against the Rangers in the Patrick Division semifinals, the Flyers found their game. After losing Game 1 3-0, they blew out the Rangers 8-3 in Game 2 and shut them out 3-0 in Game 3. The Rangers evened the series with a 6-3 win in Game 4, but the Flyers didn’t go down without a fight.

The Flyers slammed the door with a 3-1 win in Game 5 and a 5-0 shutout win in Game 6 to secure the series.

Rick Tocchet led the way with five goals in the series, with Tim Kerr chipping in three. Hextall had two shutouts, including a 35-save performance to win the series.

However, the Flyers lost Dave Poulin to injury in Game 6, and defenseman J.J. Daigneault was out indefinitely with an ankle injury.

After dispatching the Rangers in six games, the Flyers then faced New York’s other team: the Islanders.

It was another hard-fought series against New York, but this time the Flyers jumped out to the series lead behind Tim Kerr’s hat trick in a 4-1 win. The Isles evened the series at the Spectrum, but the Flyers came away with two convincing wins (4-1 and 6-4) on Long Island to take a 3-1 series lead.

It’s safe to say that these teams didn’t like each other very much.

However, the Isles, who erased a 3-1 deficit in the first round, once again forced a Game 7 after falling behind 3-1 in a series.

After falling 2-1 in Game 5 and 4-2 in Game 6, the Flyers meant business in Game 7. Dave Brown scored his first of the playoffs early in the first period, then Brian Propp and Brad Marsh added shorthanded goals within 44 seconds of one another to put the Flyers up 3-0 halfway through the first period at the Spectrum and the Flyers never looked back.

Beating the Islanders didn’t come without a cost, however, as Tim Kerr, the Flyers’ leading scorer that season with 58 goals and 95 points, suffered a season-ending injury in Game 6.

After two tough series against New York rivals, it didn’t get any easier for the Flyers as they faced the reigning Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens.

Ilkka Sinisalo scored his second of the game in overtime to give the Flyers the series lead in Game 1, but the Canadiens took Game 2 to even the series as it headed to Montreal. The Flyers struggled early in Game 3, but came back to win 4-3 and then won Game 5 by a final score of 6-3 to take a 3-1 series lead. After the Canadiens took Game 5, there were plenty of fireworks before Game 6.

The Flyers warned Canadiens agitator Claude Lemieux to not shoot the puck into their net at the end of warm ups, which was his pregame ritual. Lemieux appeared to abide by the warning, but then snuck onto the ice after the Flyers left it and shot at the net. The Flyers, who dressed a few extra skaters for warmups just in case, took notice and all hell broke loose.

That brawl may have tired some players out, but the Flyers won the game on Rick Tocchet’s goal midway through the third period to win the series in six games.

The Flyers had reached the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in three years, both against the Edmonton Oilers. After losing to the Oilers in five games in 1985, they were out for revenge.

The Oilers took Game 1 by a final score of 4-2 thanks to a three-goal barrage in the third period. They once again used the third period in Game 2, this time to force overtime, where they won the game to go up 2-0 in the series. Things were looking bleak for the Flyers, but they were coming home to the Spectrum.

The Flyers fell behind early on a Mark Messier shorthanded goal, and the Oilers eventually took a 3-0 lead early in the second period. But the Flyers stormed back with five unanswered goals to get their first win in the series.

Game 4 was a similar story to Game 3, only this time the Flyers couldn’t mount the comeback after Edmonton went up 2-0 in the first. The Flyers made it 2-1 in the second period, but went on to lose 4-1.

The Oilers were up 3-1 in the series and headed back to Edmonton feeling pretty confident. Everyone was already counting the Flyers out, and that was only emphasized by two early Oilers goals in Game 5. However, Tocchet got one back before the end of the period to give the Flyers life. They scored two more in the second period after Edmonton added one on, and Tocchet scored again in the third period to give the Flyers a 4-3 lead that they would hold onto to win the game and send the series back to Philadelphia.

Once again, Edmonton jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period. And once again, the Flyers came back. Lindsay Carson scored in the second period to get the Flyers on the board, then Brian Propp scored a power-play goal to tie the game in the third period. Then it was J.J. Daigneault who scored one of the most memorable goals in Flyers history to give them the lead in Game 6.

The Flyers had battled back from the brink of elimination to force Game 7 against the Oilers. Against all odds, they had a chance to win the Stanley Cup after falling behind 3-1 in the series.

Murray Craven scored a power-play goal in the first 101 seconds of Game 7, but that was all the Flyers came up with in a 3-1 defeat to the Oilers.

Ron Hextall added to his accolades in the Stanley Cup Final, but it wasn’t quite the hardware that he wanted. In addition to his Vezina Trophy, he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the 1987 playoffs. It’s a shame that he didn’t get another chance after such a tremendous rookie season.

Edmonton won their third Cup in four seasons, while the Flyers had to wait 10 more years before reaching the Stanley Cup Final again, and 23 years before winning another game in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Flyers ran into one of the best dynasties in sports in the 1987 Stanley Cup Final. The 1980s Oilers were led by the best player in NHL history, and he had plenty of help as well.

Wayne Gretzky led the league in all three scoring categories with 62 goals, 121 assists, and 183 points, with teammate Jari Kurri in second place behind him with 108 points. They also had Mark Messier, who was tied with Mario Lemieux for third-most points in the league with 107. Tim Kerr had an impressive season for the Flyers with 95 points (ninth-most) in 75 games, but he was out for the Stanley Cup Final. That meant that along with Gretzky, Kurri, and Messier, they had Esa Tikkanen (78 points) and Glenn Anderson (73 points), before the Flyers’ highest healthy scorer (Peter Zezel with 72 points.

The playoffs were a different story, however, as the Flyers had a handful of players step up. While the Oilers’ stars did well in 21 games – Gretzky (34 points), Messier (28), Anderson (27), Kurri (25) –, the Flyers got standout performances from Propp (28 points), Pelle Eklund (27) and Tocchet (21). Doug Crossman chipped in 18 points as well. Tim Kerr had 13 points in 12 games before his injury, which would have him on pace for around the 28 points that Propp had.

The Flyers had some of their best teams in history in the 1980s, and it’s almost criminal that they couldn’t win at least one Stanley Cup. They got a tough draw going up against the dynasty that was the Edmonton Oilers in 1985 and then again in 1987, but this 1986-87 team is definitely one of the best – if not the best – in Philadelphia Flyers history to not win the Stanley Cup.