The players always know first. They don't always say it as clearly as Kimmo Timonen did Saturday afternoon, but they always know whether their team has what it takes to compete for a championship.
The Flyers' 5-2 loss to the New York Rangers signified more than two points for the Eastern Conference's top team. It was a game that underscored the gap between these two teams. More than that, this gap almost certainly means the Flyers, as constituted, are not contending for the Stanley Cup this year.
"They're a top team," Timonen said. "That's why they're at the top. They play the same way every night. They work hard. They do the same system every night. Their goalie plays really well every night."
As for the Flyers? The veteran defenseman saw a team that failed to show up for the 1 p.m. faceoff with the required focus or intensity.
"I'm disappointed at the effort," Timonen said, "the emotional level [against] a top team in the conference and the league. To be honest, I think we had half the guys going and half the guys not."
That is a scathing assessment, and it doesn't reflect well on his teammates or on coach Peter Laviolette. Maybe that's why Laviolette declined to endorse Timonen's point of view.
"I'll have to go back and look at it," Laviolette said.
The coach and general manager Paul Holmgren are in a fascinating spot with the NHL trade deadline looming on Feb. 27. This team was put together to contend immediately. With top defensemen Timonen (36) and Chris Pronger (37) on the back side of their careers, Holmgren splurged on free-agent goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, signed 39-year-old forward Jaromir Jagr, and reshuffled his front line by trading away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
It was a bold course of action, removing two cornerstone players from a team that went to the Finals just two years ago. Two things happened to foil the plan, at least so far. Bryzgalov has turned out to be a human thrill ride on and off the ice, and Pronger, the captain and dominant personality, was lost indefinitely with a concussion.
"Obviously," Timonen said, "he would help. But he's not here. We all should get by that by now. He's not coming back."
There are precisely two ways for Holmgren and the Flyers to go. Accept that bad breaks happen and write this season off, or make a significant trade or two that shakes up the roster and adds an imposing defensive presence.
That's the stark reality after losing their fifth game of the season to the Rangers. The current team is not getting past New York. It is not beating Boston or, if Sidney Crosby returns to full strength from his own concussion problems, Pittsburgh.
This is kind of a remarkable turn of events. For a few years there, the Crosby-led Penguins and Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals represented the Flyers' biggest hurdles in the East. They managed to avoid both on that run to the Finals in 2010.
Then Boston jumped up and won the Cup last year. And now the Rangers, who finished third or fourth in their division for the last 12 years, are suddenly better, deeper, and backed by the game's hottest goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist.
It was significant that Timonen twice mentioned the superb play of Lundqvist while analyzing the gap between the two teams. Lundqvist is "really good every night," Timonen said, adding: "And if there's a breakdown, their goalie makes a save."
Bryzgalov has been anything but consistent. Saturday, it was Sergei Bobrovsky allowing Ryan Callahan's first goal of the game to carom in from a ridiculous angle. After that, admittedly, there were way too many defensive lapses to blame the goalie.
But still, despite the uncharacteristic investment in Bryzgalov, the Flyers find themselves in the same position as always: unsure about their goaltending and chasing the teams - Boston, New York - that aren't.
Since his contract means Bryzgalov isn't going anywhere, the only real fix is along the blue line. Holmgren has to fill as much of the void left by Pronger as possible or this team will be waiting for next year. Again. And if you're Timonen, there aren't many next-years left.
No wonder he was hot.
"It comes down to effort and talent and everything," he said. "I don't think there's much skill-level difference from bottom team to top team. It comes to the system. How do you execute the system, how do you play every night? Sometimes you go up and down and that's how you lose games. That's not how championship teams play.
"Every game matters. You have to bring it every night. I don't care who you are. You're 18 or 40, it doesn't matter to me. Every game matters and you have to bring it."
Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, firstname.lastname@example.org,
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