NEW YORK -- In so many ways, the Flyers are the polar opposite of the team they were at this time last year. It's March 7, they have more points than any other team in the Eastern Conference, and only an epic collapse could keep them from playing in the postseason. They are deep, they have been comparatively injury-free, and they have been blessed with many pleasant surprises, a recurring characteristic of championship teams.
Sergei Bobrovsky, Ville Leino, the continuing emergence of Claude Giroux as one of the league's superstars, the reclamation of Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell -- about the only part that hasn't worked out better than expected is the play of Nikolai Zherdev.
So there's really no good excuse or reason for what has happened over the last nine days, and particularly Sunday. Not the bounce of the puck, slumping shooters or goalies, the flu -- not even Keith Jones' suggestion during Saturday's Comcast SportsNet telecast that officials get caught up in the chase for the final playoff spots and unduly punish teams at the top.
None comes close to explaining losses to Ottawa, Toronto, Buffalo or Sunday's no mas, 7-0 effort against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, a loss that team captain Mike Richards appropriately described as "a beat-down and a half."
It was the Flyers' worst shutout loss since the 2001 playoffs, when Roman Cechmanek was replaced by Brian Boucher after allowing five goals on Buffalo's first nine shots of an 8-0 elimination defeat. Sunday it was Boucher who was replaced after allowing four goals on 18 shots, but the move seemed more merciful than punitive. The Rangers scored from the side of the net, from behind the net, from the slot, from the point. They scored two goals in the first period, two in the second and three in the third against Sergei Bobrovsky -- a 60-minute clinic that, said Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, offered "a chance for us to look at how we're playing.
"And right now we're not happy with it."
Well, that's good. Because they shouldn't be. Not with 17 games left in the regular season, not with teams finding their playoff legs as the Flyers did at this time last year. The Rangers, as Boucher noted afterward, are one such team, getting healthy after a season in which a few of their better players missed significant time. The Toronto Maple Leafs, who handed the Flyers a home loss last Thursday and will host them this Thursday, are red-hot.
But that game is wedged between home games against two of the more hapless teams in the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers Tuesday and the Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday. These are teams headed away from the pack, not toward it. This would seem to offer the Flyers not just the chance to measure up, but to clean up.
Ah, but where to start? The power play? Supporting the puck? Physicality? Pick an area. Richards spoke of "emotion." Pronger laid it on individuality. Leino Sunday was stripped trying to make a play in traffic, then raised his hand for a call as the Rangers broke on a two-on-one the other way. After a delayed high-sticking call later in the offensive zone, James van Riemsdyk also lobbied the official as New York sped the other way again.
"Turnovers are what's killing us," Pronger said. "We can look at second effort afterwards, but we've got to get the puck deep, get on the forecheck and get some sustained pressure down on the offensive zone and start grinding on teams like we have in the past. Until we do that, teams are going to pick us apart like that."
There is an assumption that they are too good a team for this to continue. That's probably true, although it's worth noting that this group has never been this deep into the season as the lead dog. Pronger, of course, has seen just about every situation, good and bad, which is why he keeps saying that "every year is going to be different."
It has been a smooth ride for most of this one, full of pleasant surprises. "Walking on air," is how coach Peter Laviolette put it Sunday. There was even a nervous anxiety about that, that this team would have it so easy that come playoff time the blocking-the-puck-with-your-face mentality would be missing.
That, folks, is your silver lining to that 7-0 loss.
To the last nine days, really.
"June is a long way off from right now," Pronger said. "You forget what it took to get there. Teams go through ups and downs, but we haven't gone through too many extended or prolonged parts of the season like this. So this is a test for us. Probably good that we check our character right now. And see where we're at."