The Flyers have spent a lot of time lately talking about their level of play. Chris Pronger, Mike Richards, Peter Laviolette and whoever else may have emerged from the woodworking as a behind the scenes leader have been purposefully attempting to covey a message — it takes more than talent to win it all.
No one can be a bigger testament to that than those who were just one step from taking home sports’ most prestigious trophy last season. Tremendous heart coupled with an unparalleled will to win led the team to complete what many called the impossible and what even the biggest optimists deemed the unthinkable.
But with less than a month left in the season a year later, the new, improved edition of the Flyers is hoping to write another chapter in Philadelphia sports lore. The talent is better, the chemistry is remarkable, and the depth of the team surpasses that of any opponent.
But as is common in sports, they have hit a speed bump. Right now the Flyers possess two qualities that can very quickly lead a team to an early postseason exit — too much comfort and a sense of security.
Almost to a man, the team acknowledges that it lacks intensity, especially against opponents who come in with the same mentality as last year’s version of the orange and black. But no one quite knows how to solve the problem. They don’t know how to create that drive or urgency that proved them so well last spring.
The brand hockey they’ve been playing is lackadaisical they say. Chris Pronger was heard screaming at teammates about the team’s tendency to turn the puck over. Laviolette spewed venom and called the effort “unnacceptable” and GM Paul Holmgren was quoted Tuesday following the Flyers’ last lost, a 7-0 drubbing Sunday at Madison Square Garden saying “Sometimes you just got to pull away and let them sit in their own pile of s— and hit them the next day.”
What’s clear, no matter who you ask, is things are not going the way the Flyers would like.
After the forgettable performance against the Rangers, the team did win Tuesday night’s game, against the Western Conference worst Edmonton Oilers. But afterward, Pronger and Claude Giroux exchanged words which, while still being a relatively minor incident, serves as the Flyers’ largest publicly known locker room issue. Pronger ripped Giroux and the Flyers for turning the puck over too often and said the team only put a 23-24 minute effort in. Giroux was not happy about the way Pronger approached him.
Thursday, Laviolette said the team’s play was much better, but Saturday, as it looked like the Flyers were in line for their third straight win and a complete performance, leading 3-0 going into the third period, the wheels fell off.
Remarkably, the head coach, who’s intensity level is often high enough even the most comprehensive anger scales don’t have him covered, was relatively even keeled after the Flyers allowed five goals in less than 21 minutes to lose to the Atlanta Thrashers in overtime, 5-4.
He repeatedly insisted that his team did not lack focus with a lead in the third period. He attributed the loss to a “chain of events” rather than the team’s inability to play with a lead, which has been a major cause for concern throughout the recent slide.
Laviolette may have been reassuring, but you can sense through the locker room that there is a new level of concern. The normally cool and collected Danny Briere called the loss “scary.”
“I don’t really have an answer for it. It’s scary. You know, we blew a 3-0 lead and even a 4-2 lead,” Briere said.
Kimmo Timmonen looked puzzled as he stumbled to figure out why the Flyers are continuing to make the same mistakes.
“It’s like the last few games, we stopped playing. When you stop playing in this league you’re going to lose games. This game is about hard work and making good plays. It seems every time we start leading 3-0, 4-0, whatever, we start turning the puck over. we think the games over — it’s not over,” Timonnen said. “That’s one of those things we have to change now. You can’t keep doing the same mistakes game after game after game. It’s going to start to bite you in the ass.”
For the second time this week, a seemingly disgusted captain Mike Richards answered just two questions before cutting the media off.
Everyone is quiet and discouraged.
Maybe that’s why now, when you least expect it, Laviolette eases off and tries to remain positive. Though he’s certainly never hesitant to crack the whip, the skipper knows the importance of maintaining team morale. Losing isn’t easy. Making costly mistakes over and over again can lead you to doubt your own ability. That’s the last thing Lavvy wants now, with the playoffs looming.
At this point, the Flyers are at a crossroads. They have 14 games remaining on their schedule. The time has come to decide who they are.
The last few weeks can very easily be looked back on as a speed bump in a terrific season. But if they continue to let this eat at them and slow them down we could potentially be looking at one of the biggest collapses in Flyers history.
Laviolette knows this and will now attempt to manage the team through uncharted waters. From untouchable to a group of 23 guys all looking at each other for answers, the Flyers need to decide who they are. And they need to do it now.
Something special could be in the works if the Flyers trust their talent. But until then, we’re looking at a team desperately searching for an identity.
Would the real Flyers please stand up? We need to know what we have so we can brace ourselves if this year’s edition is leading us toward another heartbreak.