What if the Flyers had won just a couple more regular-season games, finished ahead of New York and had Game 7 in Philly?
We were soooooo close . . .
"That's a dangerous game to play," Flyers coach Craig Berube was saying over the phone. "I try not to. We didn't play good enough in the end to beat the Rangers. That's where we're at. We've got to get better."
Not a little better. Chief means a lot better. Because the alternative view to soooooo close, the one shared unanimously by the national media covering that first-round series, was that New York was a much better team than what a seven-game series with a total goal differential of just three would suggest.
The Rangers and Flyers entered the playoffs scrapping for goals. Both teams seemed to be playing against themselves at times. But New York had established its personality over the past few seasons, and its stretches of dominance within games, especially five-on-five, were often jaw-dropping. The Rangers were so suffocating in the second period of Game 7 that only an out-of-body effort by Mason and those aforementioned scoring issues allowed the Flyers a final chance in the final period.
"In a perfect world," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said at the time, "we would have killed the game right there."
And Berube knows it.
"I think everybody has to play their style," he said. "But when I look at the Rangers and when I look at LA, those two teams particularly, it's an aggressive style of play and a team style of play, and it's four lines and they roll people and there's depth so they just keep coming and coming."
Game 7 of that series against New York wasn't just a deciding game. It was a microcosm of the series, and of the current context of the rivalry, dating back to each team's previous coach. The Flyers had more glaring breakdowns, played irresponsibly or at least unconfidently with the puck. New York's system, particularly protecting its own net, was recognizable and effective. The Rangers had an awful power play during the series, but it did not erode into the rest of their effort the way it did for the Flyers.
"Look at the way LA plays," Berube said. "The Rangers, too. They don't collapse. They don't do that. You can get outplayed for a period, but it can't look . . . it's the way it happens.
"Our team - we have to get more consistent. Not only throughout the season but within the game itself. We can't have some of those periods like we've had. Like Game 7. Our team can't have that second period. Now, we can get outplayed in a period and a team can outshoot you, but it's the way it happens. And I thought that our team in that second period of Game 7 - when we had those power plays - it seemed like our team dipped. And we kind of got on our heels. And that's where we've got to get to, to where we can't let that happen. We need to be mentally stronger. We need to play a more aggressive game. We got faster this year, but we've got to get faster."
He's not asking for big trades. Chief means the current group. I don't know how much faster he can make players like Luke Schenn and Vinny Lecavalier play or seem to play, but I remember how unbelievably slow this team appeared to be last November, when I erroneously pronounced it not fast enough or talented enough to reach the postseason.
Confidence can sure make people seem faster. A lack of it does the opposite. Left unanswered is how much more this group can offer if they come to camp in shape, or even in better-than-ever shape.
We're about to find out, said the coach.
"We made it clear that everybody has to come into camp in shape," Berube said. "It can't be average, it can't be just above average. It has to be exceptional. And they all know that . . . We need to get to another level defensively and that's just everybody being accountable every moment they're on the ice. A lot has to do with just pressure and skating and work.
"We have to change people. Because they've done it a certain way for a long while. You've got to change 'em, you've got to get on 'em more. But they've got to want to make it happen."
On Twitter: @samdonnellon