BOSTON - And so it ends for the Flyers, quickly and profoundly. Four games, four losses, and now more than 4 months to try to figure out what went wrong.
Facing elimination, the Flyers did nothing to embarrass themselves last night at TD Garden. They played a credible, competitive game. But they lost to the Bruins again, lost again, by a score of 5-1.
Now they go home to questions - about why they keep falling into holes in games and series and other times, again and again testing their skill and their impressive level of fortitude; about how much time this nucleus might have together, especially given the series of injuries suffered by 36-year-old defenseman Chris Pronger, who played only three games this spring; and about their goaltending, a hardy perennial that bloomed into a full-grown riot the last couple of weeks.
The worst thing they could do would be to make a lot of pronouncements right now because so many of these issues are linked together. There were points in the first round where the goaltending extended the series against Buffalo and exhausted everyone, for example. There were points against Boston when Pronger's ability to dominate an area of the ice was sorely missed. It is all tied up in a knot, and the weeks and months ahead are for general manager Paul Holmgren to do the untangling.
All they can do now is live with the flip side of their destiny. Last year at this time, the Flyers were celebrating a historic comeback against these self-same Bruins. Last night, though, they were the ones wearing the grim faces in the handshake line.
"It's tough for your season to end now - you want to be playing until mid-June," said James van Riemsdyk, who had seven goals in the playoffs and who was the undisputed bright side of the team's story amid all of the disappointment.
"Obviously, ideally, we don't want to be starting from behind," van Riemsdyk said, when asked about the Flyers' penchant for doing just that. "It was our own fault, maybe, for not coming out ready to play and not playing the game the right way at the start.
"It's tough. It's something you're not really prepared for, to stop playing. To not get there is pretty devastating."
The night began with the kind of intrigue that has become the Flyers' custom. Coach Peter Laviolette declined to announce his starting goaltender until about 3 hours before game time - and his choice, not surprisingly, was Sergei Bobrovsky. The circle was now complete. And, for the record, the Flyers' 11 playoff games were net-minded, in order, by:
Bobrovsky; Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher; Boucher; Boucher; Boucher and Michael Leighton; Leighton and Boucher; Boucher; Boucher and Bobrovsky; Boucher and Bobrovsky and then Boucher again; Boucher and Bobrovsky; and then, last night, Bobrovsky.
(And, remember, this material will be on the final exam.)
Eleven games. Three different starters. Six games when the starter left, either because he was terrible (three times), the team in front of him was terrible (twice), or because of injury (once).
It was the entire story of the Flyers' first-round series against Buffalo. It has been a continuing annoyance against the Bruins. And it was part of the pregame speculation before Game 4 - that, and whether or not Pronger would make a go of it after leaving Game 1 with about 2 minutes to go, never to return, with a still-undisclosed injury.
Would he? Wouldn't he? For a while, on the NHL website, the pregame lineup listed Pronger as in. But he did not warm up and then the lineup was changed. Pronger, out.
So that was how it began. A couple of hours later, it was a 1-1 game in the third period. Mike Richards forced the turnover that created the Flyers' goal that tied the game, and then slid a pass to teammate Kris Versteeg, who scored his first goal of the playoffs.
But that was all they could manage. The final score, inflated by two empty-net goals, does not tell the story. But a 4-0 sweep does tell an accurate tale. It was as definitive, in its own way, as was the historic comeback last season. It will be what everybody remembers - that and little else.
And now come the questions.
For the Flyers, months of questions.
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