Just two springs ago this team, with all its young, promising players, knocked off the Stanley Cup-favored Pittsburgh Penguins in a first round of six wildly exciting games. Sean Couturier shut down Evgeni Malkin. Claude Giroux so out-Crosbied Sidney Crosby that Peter Laviolette anointed him "the best player on the planet." With Jaromir Jagr's help, Scott Hartnell had finally matured into a power forward who seemed unstoppable at times.
Brayden Schenn, Matt Reid, Wayne Simmonds, Jake Voracek all seemed like young and prolific pieces, assembled by general manager Paul Holmgren, who would make the organization the East's beast, or at least one of them.
They're all still here. Yet, less than 2 years later, their lack of productivity and questionable mental toughness have clouded their destiny with doubt, costing their coach his job and, if the history of the team's reactionary owner is any indication, has Holmgren standing on melting ice as well.
What happened? Injury might explain last season, but not this one. A healthy Hartnell had flubbed at least a dozen dirty-area chances before injuring his shoulder. Free-agent signee Vinny Lecavalier was making Tampa Bay look awfully smart, and Holmgren, well, not so much.
Misjudgment of talent? That's certainly the fear. The season is seven games old, but the similarity between its start and last season's results allows for much second-guessing. Maybe Read, an undrafted free agent who took his time getting through 4 years of college, is not the find he first seemed to be. You wonder too if Ron Hextall, now Holmgren's assistant and perhaps heir apparent, knew something that we're now finding out when his Kings traded Schenn and Simmonds for Mike Richards in 2011.
We may find that out soon enough, with a week between tonight's game against Pittsburgh and the next one. Two things can happen tonight: The Flyers can continue to build on the improved play of the last two games, shock the first-place, red-hot Penguins with a home victory and spend the next week working on cleaning up their play in the dirty areas, fixing those neglected little things that have doomed them to such a poor start.
Or . . .
They could lose tonight's game, and it doesn't matter whether it's an embarrassing score or another close one. It doesn't matter at this point because if there is one consistency among losers in professional hockey, it is that they habitually blame the bounces and the other team's goaltending.
"We need to put 60 minutes together," new coach Craig Berube said after practice yesterday. "We put ourselves in position to win games, but going into the third period I find there's a little bit of a letdown and we find ourselves losing them."
Someone suggested to Berube that maybe his team had become used to losing late leads last season, and this year was a carry-over.
"They better get un-used to it," he growled. "Or it's going to keep happening. It's a mental block. You gotta go out and play. You got to be confident. Trust your system, trust your players around you and go play the game. Play it together as a team for 60 minutes."
The Flyers haven't done that yet this season and truth told, they rarely did it during last year's lockout-shortened one. They started slow and gave up third-period leads and spoke repeatedly about upping their effort and getting those dirty goals that McGinn has scored in his first two games.
"Everybody in the NHL, we've all grown up wanting to win," McGinn said. "To take that beating, that bruise, it's nothing if you can get that one goal. It's whatever it takes.
"That's how you score goals in this league now. They're not the hardest shots in the world. They're easy shots to save. It's just that every now and then they come out into the slot and that's where you have to be. I've gotten lucky the last couple of games to be in the right area. So you just drive the net, which is what 'Chief' has been pounding on guys to do. It's tough to get there, but if you want to score, that's where you've got to go."
On Twitter: @samdonnellon