Flyers putting themselves in a tough spot

Flyers' Wayne Simmonds shoves Columbus Blue Jackets' Cam Atkinson during the second period.
Flyers' Wayne Simmonds shoves Columbus Blue Jackets' Cam Atkinson during the second period. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: April 05, 2014

The game was gone by now, and Claude Giroux brought his stick down like a hatchet on the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets' Mark Letestu, knocking Letestu's stick to the ice, drawing a meaningless penalty and one last groan from the few faithful souls who hadn't made for the Wells Fargo Center exits.

There were just 23 seconds remaining in regulation Thursday night, when Giroux plopped down into the penalty box and dropped his head, the scene an ideal symbol for a long, frustrating night for the Flyers.

Instead of putting the Blue Jackets farther behind them in the standings, they couldn't solve their old goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, losing, 2-0, and keeping their playoff situation murky.

They've gone through a gauntlet to get to this point, and in one sense they ought to be admired for even finding themselves in this position. But they're rewriting that oh-so fun story of theirs. They've gone from surging to clinging.

This is back-to-back games without a goal in regulation. This is five losses (yes, two of them in shootouts) in six games. This is a slump at the worst of times.

So when does this become a crisis?

"I don't know why this one wouldn't be as emotional as the past ones," forward Scott Hartnell said. "These guys are right on our tails. They've been playing really well as well. I don't think you can start pressing the panic button or anything, but we definitely have to get harder."

Somewhere along the way, the Flyers began playing so well that they persuaded people that a postseason berth was a mere formality and that a deep playoff run was a worthy expectation of them. They've come a long way under Craig Berube, finding his structure and defensive system a better fit for their personnel than the get-up-and-go style of Peter Laviolette, yanking themselves out of the depths of a 3-9-0 start.

They'd become the team in the Eastern Conference that no one wanted to play. With the right draw and a few breaks, there was no telling how far they might go.

But the sheen from those heady days is duller now. It's nice that in their previous two games, the Flyers earned points against the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues, two of the NHL's truly elite teams. But being tied with a superior opponent after 60 minutes of play doesn't do the Flyers much good in practical terms, and losing in regulation to a team nipping at their heels does even less. Shootouts are silly, manufactured drama, but they matter, and the Flyers have failed to pick up four additional points over their last three games that could turn out to be crucial.

"You're aware of all the standings right now; it's so tight," goaltender Steve Mason said. "It's a must-win just because you're not gaining points and other teams are."

The Blue Jackets are two points behind the Flyers for third place in the Metropolitan Division; each team has six games left. Should Columbus leapfrog them, the Flyers would have to settle for a wild-card spot - assuming the Toronto Maple Leafs, who won Thursday night and are three points back, don't pass them in the standings, too. (A long shot, given that the Leafs themselves had been in free fall, but possible.)

A wild-card spot means a matchup against either the Bruins - arguably the league's best team - or the Pittsburgh Penguins and a brutal, bloody test right out of the gate. A wild-card spot means no home-ice advantage. It means everything is a little more difficult, and everything already is, starting with their next game: Saturday against the Bruins at TD Garden.

A victory Thursday - hell, even a respectable performance - would have been reason for calm, except the Flyers were discombobulated all night. They were 0 for 4 on the power play, barely challenging Bobrovsky. They outshot Columbus, 17-9, in the second period, yet sagged once the third began. All anyone needed to see was Giroux slash at Letestu out of desperation, out of frustration, to know where things stand for them now.

"We came out flat," Hartnell said. "We let them come into our zone too easy and just let them move the puck around way too easy. The first two periods, I thought we battled. We were strong on pucks and everything. But that third period . . . to come out in the third period that flat was not our M.O. all year."

No, it wasn't. But that's irrelevant. It's been their M.O. lately, and it's too late in the season for this: for five losses in six games, for an offense to go into hibernation, for concern to creep in.

When does this become a crisis?

We'll find out Saturday in Boston.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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