FOR THE FIRST TIME in a long time, the Flyers played a home game they didn't have to have last night. And they played it that way, too. Even at the point late in the second period of a 2-0 loss when they had doubled up the Columbus Blue Jackets in shots, 26-13, the lack of immediacy in their game was easily discernible - unneeded extra passes, passes into unoccupied slots, home-run tries that were easily picked at midice and sent the other way.
And sometimes, when they fell to the ice, they remained vertical long enough to do a few snow angels.
But I choose here not to make jokes at their expense, but rather grant them a well-deserved mulligan. This was the 11th of 17 games the Flyers will play over the last 30 days of the season, and if someone told you back on March 15 they would enter last night's game with a 6-2-2 record against a steady diet of the NHL's best and most talented teams, wouldn't something like last night's egg-timer effort feel inevitable?
And if someone told you back in October that we would be even talking about playoffs? You'd sound a lot like Jim Mora, wouldn't you?
Snow angels aside, the Flyers were simply not the same team last night that has fueled their rise from those October ashes, a team that has built a reputation for resilience, persistence and mental toughness. From the point that James Wisniewski jammed a power-play goal through Steve Mason's pads with just under 3 minutes remaining in the second period, the Flyers generated just 13 more shots, five coming in the frantic final 2 minutes when they tried to jam the puck through what seemed, by then, full metal Jackets.
"We stopped playing our game in the third period," Flyers coach Craig Berube said afterward. "They came at us hard and it looked like we got frustrated."
You want another reason to view this game as a blip and not a four-alarmer? Statistically, the Flyers are second only to the Bruins in third-period goal differential. The Jackets, on the other hand, have built their résumé on getting first-period leads and putting up that wall around Sergei Bobrovsky. But the teams reversed personalities last night, and for an obvious reason: Columbus needed the game more.
"They had 22 blocked shots," Berube said. "That's too many. We have to do a better job of getting it through to the net, get rebounds. That's the key to scoring. Goalies like Bobrovsky like to come out and challenge. We've gt to find a way to get rebounds."
Especially on power plays, which were a pond-hockey level mess last night. Three in the first period were mostly anarchy, and ineffectual. "Not much happened," Berube said. "We need to execute better there."
With a nationally televised game against the Bruins looming tomorrow and an apparent free-throw against Buffalo on Sunday, you can bet that will be a point of emphasis at today's practice.
The Flyers have six games left, and history dictates they will need just seven points over those games to guarantee a playoff spot. That seems a lock, especially given that their 6-2-2 record prior to last night includes impressive wins against the Blues, Stars and Blackhawks and two against the Penguins, and point-getting efforts against the Blues and Bruins as well. Really, since they registered that 2-1 stinker of a loss against the Devils here on March 11, the Flyers' effort has been admirably consistent and persistent.
Until last night.
The Flyers had lost by more than a goal just once in that span, 3-1 to the Rangers in Madison Square Garden 10 days ago. That's the latest bogeymen, of course, those Rangers replacing the Devils as the team that seems to be in their heads - and in their way.
That's another reason last night's loss was far from lethal. Slipping into a lower seed and avoiding New York as a first-round matchup may benefit this team. Especially if they end up drawing Pittsburgh, a banged-up team clearly not playing its best hockey down the stretch.
But that's a dangerous game to play, especially for a team resurrected from its early dire prognosis by treating every games as if it's a playoff. The difference between a wanted matchup and a dreaded matchup in this bunched-up race could be the difference between a shootout win or, perish the thought, another mailed-in third period.
Someone asked Berube how much more pressure his team felt now that Columbus had pulled within two points of them. "Same pressure as it was tonight," he said. "We all know that. We all know the situation. We've got to win hockey games."
On Twitter: @samdonnellon