Sam Donnellon: Flyers don't need to engage in call talk

Flyers coach John Stevens had plenty to say to the referees during his team's Game 2 loss in Pittsburgh. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)


It's a great slogan to place on a T-shirt, a great axiom for a team whose best-known superstar, Danny Briere, said yesterday, "I've never really considered myself a superstar."

For the 2 final weeks of the regular season and the first two improbable rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Flyers have been justifiably proud of their party-crashing status, their ability to bounce back from bad giveaways and bad losses. They are the no-name nomads of these playoffs, at least in the Eastern Conference, vanquishing one of the NHL's best stories (Capitals) and storied teams (Canadiens) in the first two rounds.

But yesterday, the slogan lost a word, and it is an important one. "Why Us?" became the theme of the day over the airwaves and, I suspect, in the newspapers today, which is unfortunate. Because the Flyers weren't whining as much yesterday as they were honestly answering the questions put to them. And for every jab at calls made or not made in their series against Pittsburgh were four or five lengthy and well-thought admissions that they have been victimized more by their own mistakes than any penalty called or missed.

To their credit, fans resisted the urge yesterday to name officiating as the primary reason for the Flyers' dilemma in the "Daily News Live" poll, listing it near the bottom, just ahead of injuries. Unfortunately, the network carrying that poll could not resist that urge, mostly because it fit nicely into a tease for the 6:30 "SportsNite," but also because it made for a more juicy story.

As is often the case this time of year, distortion merges with perception for the sake of a good story, as I relearned last round in asking if nationalism was affecting objective officiating after a lopsided number of penalties were called against the Flyers over the first three games of their series with Montreal.

This series is different, though, at least in the Flyers' view. Sure, Briere was still miffed that an Evgeni Malkin elbow off the puck was not called, but he also said, "In the first game, I thought the referees did a marvelous job. And we still didn't win." And when someone tried to bait him into a discussion of the Penguins drawing penalties through theatrics, he said - with a wry smile - "We have some guys who can embellish a little, so it goes both ways."

The truth is this has not been the Montreal series, not by a longshot. The Penguins clearly scored an additional goal Sunday night, which offset the ridiculous penalty called against Derian Hatcher that led to Pittsburgh's second goal. Malkin surely should have drawn something for his cheap shot, and Briere was pushed into Marc-Andre Fleury for that goalie-interference call, but this was officiating incompetence more than it was conspiracy. They missed a call on Briere, too.

After introducing the time-tested "We are the Flyers" referee conspiracy theory, goaltender Martin Biron dismissed it this way: "Everybody thinks they're getting the calls against them. After a game nobody is happy with the calls. When you watch the game on the TV later or on the tape then you can see what's really going on out there but when I played in Buffalo I always thought we were a marked team, too. That's just the way it is."

The Flyers need to be careful here. They felt justifiably miffed at the media's obsession about Washington's bad luck in Round 1, and Montreal's reluctance to give them credit even after losing in five games did not sit well in their room days later.

Flyers coach John Stevens again yesterday implored the officials to give his superstars the same treatment that he believes Pittsburgh's are getting. Yes, he also said, "I think we have to play better, to be honest with you." But it's a dicey path he's taking here, especially after proudly wearing the shirt with the slogan into a preseries meeting with the press last Thursday, after proudly asserting his team had made it this far by playing through the calls and bounces and adversity.

Stevens should drop the talk about calls completely from here on out. If for no other reason than his team takes its cues from him, runs its personality through his approach. That "Why Not Us?" slogan was perfectly suited for his team up until now, up until injuries to his two best defensemen eroded the swagger with which the Flyers entered the series.

That swagger - the "Not" - has to return tonight. It has to work through bad calls and bad bounces and through a Penguins team full of healthy bodies and bullish superstars, or this series is done.

Said Stevens: "I think we need to play better than we played . . . Sometimes you have to work harder for your breaks. Things happen in the hockey game you're not always going to agree with, but you have to deal with them.

"We say, 'Why Not Us?' But there's still a lot we have to do to be the 'Us' that we want to be." *

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