It’s not enough that the Detroit Red Wings have shredded the Philadelphia Flyers’ defense and morale in taking a 3-0 lead in the Stanley Cup finals. The Flyers seem intent on compounding the damage by self-destructing, a process that could end tonight at Joe Louis Arena with the Red Wings’ first Cup championship since 1955.
After an emotional meeting Friday, Flyer players learned that Coach Terry Murray had told reporters his team is “in a choking situation” to explain its failure under pressure.
He later cited the example of Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone, who missed two free throws in the final seconds of Game 1 of the NBA finals, setting up Michael Jordan’s buzzer-beating game-winner for the Chicago Bulls.
“I don’t know where [the team’s confidence] has gone,” Murray said. “But many teams have been through this problem before and it is basically a choking situation, I call it, for our team right now. That can turn around. The one thing about going through that phase is that it’s a mental block as much as anything.”
Asked to elaborate, Murray said players haven’t individually raised the level of their play to the caliber required of champions.
“If that’s not happening, you’re never going to break through and you’re going to be one of those teams that were also-rans your whole life,” he said. “You’re going to choke. You’re going to get into competitive situations and you’re not going to know how to break through and get the job done. That’s something you learn as an athlete and a team.”
If Murray meant to motivate or challenge his players--whom he has subjected to two goaltending switches and various lineup changes--the word “choke” seemed only to heighten tension on a team in disarray.
“Nobody likes to be called that,” defenseman Eric Desjardins said. “I don’t want to start a big war in the newspapers, but it hurts to hear that. I don’t know which way he wanted us to take it, but he didn’t say anything like that to us.
“It’s always worse hearing it from somebody else. I don’t think that any professional athlete likes to hear that, especially from a coach.”
Said left wing Shjon Podein, “I don’t think we’re choking. I hear a lot of talk that we’re not playing up to snuff and that’s totally true. But this series is not over. We’ve got to really pick up our game defensively. We’re not getting a lot going offensively, but that starts with our defense.”
John LeClair also disagreed with Murray.
“I don’t know if it’s choking,” he said. “We just feel we haven’t played the way we want to play and it’s real frustrating for us.”
Suggested forward Rod Brind’Amour, “What he means is that when you choke, you’re tentative and not playing well, and we’re doing all that stuff. All these are things we’re not proud of.”
In any event, the Flyers get another chance tonight, although only one team, the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, ever overcame an 0-3 deficit in the finals.
Murray said that defenseman Paul Coffey, who sat out Game 3 because of a concussion, is questionable for tonight’s game.
The Red Wings, who have allowed the Flyers one even-strength goal in the series and have trailed for only two minutes, maintained a quiet confidence Friday and avoided boasts that could end up on the bulletin board in the Flyers’ locker room.
Goalie Mike Vernon, whose 15 playoff victories are two more than he had in the regular season, never envisioned being in this position a few months ago, before Coach Scotty Bowman chose him over Chris Osgood because of his greater playoff experience.
“I thought, more or less, I was an insurance policy this season instead of a starter,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun the last couple of months. Every hockey player and athlete dreams of a situation like this. We’re all in good position right now.”
Commissioner Gary Bettman said the earliest expansion will be considered is at the Board of Governors meeting June 25 and all details--such as how teams will be stocked and how the NHL will be realigned--will be announced at once.
The NHL is expected to add teams from Nashville, St. Paul, Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, in two sets of two teams each. That could change if the Edmonton Oilers are sold and moved, but Bettman said he anticipates the Oilers remaining in Edmonton.
If the Red Wings win tonight, team and city officials are urging fans to celebrate without the violence that erupted after the Tigers’ 1984 World Series victory and the Pistons’ 1990 NBA title.
When the Pistons won their second consecutive title, seven people were killed and several others injured as thousands packed downtown streets. After the Tigers’ 1984 triumph, more than 100,000 people took to the streets. One person died as cars were overturned and burned and stores looted.
The Washington Capitals, looking to quickly fill two key vacancies, reportedly are set to hire Ron Wilson as coach and George McPhee as general manager.
Wilson coached the Mighty Ducks last season but his contract was not renewed. George McPhee is vice president of the Vancouver Canucks.
They would replace coach Jim Schoenfeld and general manager David Poile, both dismissed after a season in which the Capitals finished fifth in their division and failed to make the playoffs.
Schoenfeld has interviewed for the Phoenix job and Buffalo according to published reports. Detroit assistant Barry Smith also interviewed with Phoenix.
The Washington Post, Toronto Star and Arizona Republic all reported the pending moves, with the deal likely to be announced Monday.
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Detroit leads best-of-seven series, 3-0
* Game 1: Detroit 4, Philadelphia 2
* Game 2: Detroit 4, Philadelphia 2
* Game 3: Detroit 6, Philadelphia 1
* Tonight: Philadelphia at Detroit, 5.
* Tuesday: Detroit at Philadelphia, 5 p.m.-x
* Thursday: Philadelphia at Detroit, 5 p.m.-x
* June 14: Detroit at Philadelphia, 5 p.m.-x
The Associated Press contributed to this story.