It has been uphill almost all the way for the Flyers, from a 1-7 start, a 2-7-2 slump in January, and lately through a schedule that, since January 25, has had them playing 13 teams in playoff position in 19 games and winning eight of them.
So when, after consecutive losses to the surging Kings and Rangers, two of the most fundamentally sound teams in the league, Craig Berube says his players’ compete level and attention to details has slipped, that’s another way of saying so has their margin for error. And that’s not just because there are only 10 games to go and the lead for the final playoff spot is only three points. There have been no opportunities in this stretch – as there will be few the rest of the season -- to get away with mediocre performances.
“It’s hard, it’s a tough schedule,” said Berube after the 3-1 loss in New York Wednesday night. “But I don’t want to hear that.
“Can’t have excuses this time of year. We need to do our jobs. Maybe you are tired, maybe you have nagging injuries, but in that case you have to play smarter and to me we didn’t tonight.
“(Dan) Girardi and (Ryan) McDonagh were in our face all night tonight and we didn’t put the puck behind them, make them work and go get it.”
Holding the lead only because a puck hopped over Kimmo Timonen’s stick, the Rangers nevertheless were in position to be at their frustrating best, blocking shots, making the Flyers come 180 feet, which they tried to do the hard way, not the way to finish all their excellent work of the last two months.
This team has bounced back too many times from games far worse than these last two for anyone to suspect the Flyers are running out of gas this close to the finish.
Much as they may have needed a practice Thursday, Berube wisely decided to save their legs. These players are no more tired than any other team in a league playing the Olympics-compressed schedule. No, it’s not the frequency of the games that may be temporarily sapping the strength of the Flyers, more the quality of them.
“We have played a lot of good teams,” Claude Giroux allowed Wednesday night.
The Flyers haven’t been outclassed by any of them. They have demonstrated too much depth in scoring, character and consistency in goal for anyone to start to doubt them. It is bad periods, not entirely bad games, that have caught up to them, but that’s plenty of opening for the better teams.
The sag didn’t hurt the Flyers against ninth-place Dallas because Steve Mason outplayed Tim Thomas. Overall leader St. Louis was overcome because Berube’s team picked up its pace considerably in the second and third periods.
So the Flyers’ nose has to go all the way back to the grindstone against a desperate Toronto team coming into the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night off six straight losses.
Boston and St. Louis, the two best clubs in the NHL because they don’t beat themselves, follow a less-structured Leafs team that can. Regardless, the puck has to go in deep, making the game easier for the Flyers and harder for opponents of any caliber.
The Flyers can beat the top teams; in fact just last weekend defeated one of them. But they have to play better than this to do it.
The Philadelphia teams that collapsed when the playoffs were within reach in 1970 and 1991, did not have nearly the firepower that this one does, but the Flyers have to maximize it.
With ten games to go and the margin for mistakes shrinking, the best way to keep things from becoming uncomfortably tense is to keep them simple.
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