On February 24th, the Philadelphia Flyers were 40-15-6. They'd found a young stud in rookie goaltending sensation Sergei Bobrovsky. Their top six defensemen were probably the best in the league. Claude Giroux was emerging as a star, and Danny Briere was finally earning every cent of his $52 million contract. A repeat appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals seemed all but certain.
Yet here are we are on April 8th, less than a week away from the start of the playoffs, and the Flyers are in big trouble. What seemed like a midseason swoon has lasted for months; just when you think they've got it figured out, another heartbreaking loss sends them right back to square one. It's increasingly possible that the Flyers, thought to have locked up the top seed after 57 consecutive days in front, could fall to number four by Sunday.
So what happened?
I'm not even sure where to begin. Bobrovsky, while steady overall, mixed in a few stinkers. Chris Pronger got hurt. Too many players took whole periods off at a time. The Briere-Leino-Hartnell line cooled down considerably. Mike Richards played his worst stretch of hockey maybe ever. The team's level of physicality dropped tremendously. And the power play has been, and continues to be, abysmal at 16.6% (19th in the NHL).
Some people like to place all the blame on Kris Versteeg, noting that the Flyers are 10-9-6 since he arrived in a trade with Toronto. But it would be pretty sad if this team of battle-tested veterans, where even young players like Richards and Jeff Carter have played in a Cup Final and an Eastern Conference Final, were that thrown off their game by the "disruption" of adding a single player. Plus, let's not forget that Versteeg won a championship with Chicago last year.
More than anything, I think an inevitable lull set in after so many months of stellar play, one that they unexpectedly haven't been able to overcome. How much of that is due to the continued lack of Pronger, the outspoken yang to Richards's quiet yin? Losing a top-10 NHL defenseman, especially one with Pronger's leadership skills, is never an easy thing to overcome. But the Flyers survived without him in the early going; thrived, even. It's been a team-wide effort that warrants team-wide blame.
Whatever it is, the Flyers need to figure it out fast. As of today, they'll play Buffalo in the first round, but a few losses (and Pittsburgh wins) would turn that into an extremely tough matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa's 3-0-1 against the Flyers this season, and if the last few weeks are any indication, it could very quickly be one-and-done for a team that looked invincible not too long ago.
On February 11th, Peter Laviolette said this season was "Stanley Cup or bust." A lot of people, including Sports Illustrated, think that Philly's still a worthy Cup contender (although the return of a fully healthy Pronger is no longer a guarantee). And the Flyers themselves seem to think they can flip a switch and starting blowing teams out again, recapturing whatever made them so dominant in late 2010.
But maybe, just maybe, this lengthy cold spell has been the team reverting to the mean. Maybe they never were a true top team; maybe they just got hot early and wilted late. I don't want to believe it, but if they can't go deep into the playoffs again, all that dominating winter play will be a faint memory in another ultimately forgettable Flyers season.