No writing Flyers' obit or giving them a medal yet

Posted: April 06, 2014

AS THE FLYERS stumble through the bog of an Olympic season's end, they remain as enigmatic now as they ever were.

They don't believe that.

They consider themselves a finished product, predictable and professional.

They think they are a viable playoff team. That's their right.

Maybe they don't need to be objective.

In fact, they might need to be subjective - optimistic, even - if they expect to succeed and improve.

So, let them be.

The people who watch them need not subscribe to that optimism.

The Flyers entered last night two points ahead of Columbus for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division, but the Flyers also had lost five times in six games.

To be fair, that's starker than it sounds.

One loss was at Madison Square Garden, a house of horrors for the Flyers since 2011, a loss to a Rangers team a tick or two better than they are.

One loss was to the Kings, an excellent road team that has players still with axes to grind in Philadelphia.

One was a loss to the Bruins, the best team in the East; another, to the Blues, the best team in the West. Both were shootout losses.

Then they got shut out Thursday by Sergei Bobrovsky, the Goalie of the Future whom they ditched 2 years ago . . . and watched win the Vezina Trophy in Columbus.

They return to Boston this afternoon, very likely to lose their sixth game in their last seven, since the Bruins beat them in their other two meetings this season.

They come back to Philadelphia for an evening game tomorrow against Buffalo, which sets up nicely as a letdown game.

They finish the season next Sunday against Carolina, a mediocre team that they haven't beaten in three tries.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a misdirected respect shown the Flyers as some dangerous pit of vipers capable of doing in any team in the playoffs.

In a day or two, there could be a misdirected dismissal of the Flyers as a titillating midseason thrill; a team struggling on the power play (0-for-10 in their last three games), a team throttled offensively (shut out in consecutive games for the first time since 2009).

Neither assessment is appropriate now, nor will they be until the season ends and the Flyers display their relative worthiness either in the playoffs or by their playoff absence.

Too many questions remain.

Before the season began, no one could anticipate how much longer Peter Laviolette's reign of recklessness would be effective. Zero games, as it turned out; he was fired after three listless losses.

As the season progressed, no one could forecast how effective company man Craig Berube's defense-first approach would be without a cast assembled for such duty. Pretty effective, as it turned out, as the players assumed accountability and accomplished cohesion.

Early on, no one could tell just how good Steve Mason would really be after his hot start. Good in general, as it turned out, with a dip here or there.

All season, no one could tell just how limited Claude Giroux would be; if he would grow into a captaincy thrust upon him too soon; if he could find space against a league that is convinced that smothering him destroys the Flyers' offense; if he could inspire the rest of the team by word or deed.

As it turns out, Giroux has won the dressing room, if not every battle on the ice.

But, really, besides Laviolette's removal, the other issues remain unanswered; at least, not fully answered.

They cannot be answered until the Flyers face the same team in a playoff series; not until a team formulates a plan, targets Flyers players and either wins or loses the series.

Berube's conservatism? Can it plug the holes in the dike early in playoff games and allow the attack to charge back late?

Who knows?

The Flyers did it 11 times so far this season, coming back in the third period and winning. That's a hard way to earn a living. Too hard, in the playoffs.

Mason has emerged from a second slump with steady play. He has lost three of four, but he has not allowed more than three goals in his last nine games and is sporting a .931 save percentage in that span . . . which means nothing for a starting goalie. They are defined by their playoff performances, and Mason's only trip resulted in four losses and a 4.27 goals-against average as a 20-year-old rookie in 2009 with Columbus.

Ray Emery, not Mason, will start today in Boston.

No matter how well Mason or Emery plays, if the power play doesn't click, and if the captain doesn't produce, the Flyers cannot win.

Giroux lately has been ineffective, as he periodically is; he has no points in three straight games.

As the captain, these last six games will go far in defining Giroux' season. He did not score a goal in his first 15 games this season, of which, not coincidentally, the Flyers won only four. He was held without a point in the first five, and they won only once.

What he did since - 25 goals and 71 points in 61 games - was remarkable, and it established his leadership on Berube's club.

What he does in these next 9 days could cement it.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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