"I liked a lot of things that we did," coach John Stevens said, repeating a theme after tough losses to Ottawa last week and these Rangers last Thursday, and ugly wins like the 3-2 victory over the lifeless Islanders on Saturday.
Eight of the Flyers' last nine games have been decided by a goal. In most of those, they have begun games listlessly. Sometimes they have rallied admirably. Sometimes they have made messes. Sometimes they have cleaned up after with wild rallies.
No team is better in the third period than these guys. Yet, they gave away home ice yesterday in the third period and were a Braydon Coburn stick blade from allowing the Islanders to tie them on Saturday. The Flyers have lost four of those eight one-goal games, are 4-5-1 over their last 10 games, and are barely .500 since they surprised everyone by temporarily cooling off the Penguins with a 3-1 Sunday matinee win on March 22.
They reek of mediocrity. Maybe because they have some gaudy individual statistics - six guys with 25 goals or more - they don't seem to smell it. They held three leads in the regular-season finale and couldn't, in the words of the coach, "salt it away." And yet, Stevens said, "I've liked the way we played lately . . . "
Huh? To be fair, Stevens followed that with, "If there's one part of our game that concerns me, it's that we turn the puck over too much," but later he lauded his defense, which all but deposited two of the Rangers' goals in their own net, for its "composure." The Rangers tied the game at 2-2 with a shorthanded goal after Coburn left his feet too soon and turned a two-on-two into a two-on-one. The winning goal was scored when a puck bounced off Jamie Fritsch, another stopgap defenseman the Flyers signed to a $98, one-game deal, and landed on Blair Betts' stick in the high slot.
It was a bad break, particularly for a kid who played well, a kid who finished plus-1 in nine shifts. Fritsch was in there so the Flyers could get more rest for Ryan Parent's injured groin. His return and that of Luca Sbisa should bolster the blue line for the playoffs, but Parent has been around for much of the Flyers' 2009 inertia, as have Coburn, Randy Jones and Matt Carle.
"I'm just disappointed the way we played with the lead in the third period," said Danny Briere, who had a goal and an assist. "Maybe we have the wrong approach, just thinking about getting a tie, getting a point . . . We should have had the mentality of going out there and trying to get a two-goal lead, a three-goal lead. I thought we kind of sat back and waited to see what would happen in the first 10 minutes of the third period and go from there."
Mike Richards, the captain who seems a little low on treads these days, added: "We know if we play like we did there, we're obviously not going to go far." But even he seemed to be relying on this belief that their play is not as bad as it appears to the naked eye, that the Flyers are one of those teams that can crank it up when they really need to.
"The positive thing is that every time we need a big game, we've needed a big effort, we've seemed to show up for it," he said.
The big games start Wednesday in Pittsburgh. Four there, three here, just like last year's Eastern Conference finals. There was talk of redemption on Easter Sunday, even of "owing" them something. Stranger things have happened in hockey, for sure. But not if the Flyers keep conning themselves about who they are, and how much more they need to be.
"We have no choice if we want to go anywhere," Briere said. "There's no more breaks. We won't be able to redeem ourselves." *
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