March 14, 2010

Who are you?

The Philadelphia Flyers have 14 games left to figure out who they are.

Are they the team that dominated the New Jersey Devils and Montreal Canadiens in two early February home-and-homes, the team that came from behind in extremely dramatic fashion to upend the 44-18-6 Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday afternoon?

Or are they the team that was embarrassed by both the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, two key Eastern Conference rivals, over the last four days? Are they what they often seem to be, an inconsistent bunch of overpaid underachievers?

No one knows for sure. For now, they're both, a Jekyll and Hyde team that says all the right things, looks great on paper and comes up short when it counts.

In the NHL, a win can wipe the slate clean on even the worst game. In other sports, it would be just another notch in the right column, but the two points a victory earns you in hockey are invaluable.

So when the Flyers were struggling post-Olympics, losing to the Buffalo Sabres and squeaking out wins over the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders, no one complained too loudly. They were taking care of business, beating bad teams and racking up just enough points. Good play or not, the Flyers seemed to be, at the very least, locking up a playoff spot.

The Chicago victory was the textbook example of the "a win is a win" philosophy: Until the end of the second period, Michael Leighton was carrying the team on his back. And until the very, very end of the third period, the game seemed destined to be a loss. But after the goals by Scott Hartnell and Chris Pronger, it became, unquestionably, the biggest victory of the year. Even more than that, it looked like it could be the turning point in the season, a spark that would light a fire under the Flyers' asses.

But after another lackluster performance today, the Flyers are 4-3-1 in their last eight. That's been good enough to hold onto sixth place in the East but not the kind of record that will help gain any ground on nearby Ottawa and New Jersey. They're also still in very real danger of dipping into the final two playoff spots, which would mean a first-round trip to either our nation's capital or the home of the defending Stanley Cup champions. Those are not places the Philadelphia Flyers want to go.

There was an article by Sam Carchidi in today's Philadelphia Inquirer that took notice as to how the 2008 and 2009 Flyers ended their regular seasons. The 2008 Flyers finished up 7-1-1 and made a surprising appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. The 2009 Flyers memorably coasted into the playoffs with a 7-7-1 record and were wiped out in six games by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A hot finish would in no way guarantee the Flyers playoff success; we've all seen teams flounder when it counts for absolutely no reason, and we've also seen teams, often ones packed with veterans, who are able to flip a switch and get into postseason mode in an instant.

If you remember, the 2009 Flyers closed the regular season acting like they had this ability. Two weeks later, they were playing golf. For this year's team, one that brought in long-time leaders like Ian Laperriere, Chris Pronger and Blair Betts, there'd be no excuse for that kind of behavior. Playing hard for three periods a night over the last four weeks of the year, especially under a fiery ass-kicker like Peter Laviolette, should not be that much to ask.

2010 has already been a letdown of a season: John Stevens got fired, Ray Emery got injured, Scott Hartnell and Simon Gagne got (for the most part) shitty and the team continues to hover around mediocrity. No one expects much from them in the playoffs, but we all do expect them to get in. And while they probably don't have the talent to take down Washington or even Pittsburgh, we saw what they're capable of on Saturday. If Leighton can keep up his strong play, if the lines start to click and if the defense continues to be steady, they can compete with anybody.

But, as always with the Philadelphia Flyers, it's not a question whether they can. It's a question of whether they will.

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