The Flyers, who need an unlikely three-game winning streak against defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh to keep their season from expiring, had the unfortunate timing this year of returning to the postseason when merely qualifying isn't much of an accomplishment in Philadelphia. Any other season, sure. But not this one.
Blame it on the Eagles. The local football team not only raised the bar for postseason success, but eliminated all excuse-making for not have a decent run. If an NFL team can win the Super Bowl with Nick Foles at quarterback in place of the guy who should have been the league's most valuable player, then please don't tell us about someone's lower-body boo-boo.
Worse yet for the Flyers, they've always been able to count on the Sixers not showing them up in recent years. Neither team has won a playoff round since the 2011-12 season, but the Sixers didn't even bother making the postseason until now. Say what you will about the Flyers as they bumped along from Peter Laviolette to Craig Berube to Dave Hakstol, but at least they were trying.
General manager Ron Hextall is playing the long game and didn't give in to the organization's history of gobbling a sugar rush of veteran mercenaries in place of intelligent, measured growth. Even so, the team usually competed to the best of its ability and, unfortunately, that's what it did most nights against the Penguins. They looked as bad as they did in the three losses — outscored 17-1 — not because they weren't, but because Pittsburgh is that much better in the playoff cauldron, which is a very different brand of hockey.
It was a measure of their dedication that they got the 4-2 win on Friday night to force the series to a sixth game, but expecting that twice more against an experienced, superior team is expecting a lot.
And, jeez, while the Flyers have been mostly plodding along in the dark, the Sixers have been dueling with the Miami Heat in incredibly intriguing fashion. They've got a rookie of the year who can do anything they need. They've got snipers arrayed around the perimeter. And they've got this big dude with a mask who is probably the most entertaining athlete in this town on a nightly basis since Allen Iverson. Put it all together and the Sixers appear to be a team capable of winning big right now.
It's not a comparison that is kind to the Flyers, who have looked so dead at times they should play the national anthem of Atlantis before the games. Again, that's not necessarily a measure of reality, or where the Flyers are in their own "process," but tell that to the people who booed them off home ice after a dud in pivotal Game 4 – and could have the same opportunity on Sunday
"We're not ready for our season to be over," captain Claude Giroux said bravely before Friday's win. Well, what playoff team ever is? That desire to continue doesn't make the Flyers remarkable and, regrettably, their play over the bulk of the series hasn't been remarkable, either.
So, it's an unlucky time to suffer a quick playoff exit in Philadelphia, simply because there isn't the same usual company with which to share the misery. The anticipated end to this season does obscure how close the team is getting to Hextall's vision of competing at a deeper level, though, which means it's time for some of those "bright spots" everyone always loves at a time like this.
The brightest might simply be the way the team responded in the back half of the season, despite a spate of injuries and despite having to shake off an 8-11-7 start, including that stretch of 10 winless games.
There have been teams that would have gone into full Hotel California mode at that point, checking out even if they didn't leave. And there certainly were teams that would have pointed the blame at the coach so frequently it would have resembled a Brittany spaniel convention. Part of Hextall's genius is he selected a coach who the players understood wasn't going to be moved out if they complained. Never before has a Flyers coach had that luxury, so Hakstol could continue to work them and it paid off. The team accumulated 75 points in its last 56 games, and that without knowing the identity of its goalie from one night to the next.
That was an impressive comeback, and it was accomplished while the team gave valuable experience to 19-year-old center Nolan Patrick, the cornerstone of Hextall's slow rebuilding, as well as NHL ice time for top prospects Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom and Robert Hagg.
Right behind those guys are defenseman Philippe Myers, center German Rubtsov, and 19-year-old goalie Carter Hart, who was so ridiculously good in the Western Hockey League this season that holding him back another year, the original plan, could be scrubbed.
Those are just the projected stars, and, of course, some will succeed and some will not. But Hextall also has a lot of maybes in the pipeline and he figures to hit on some of those as well.
Of course, it is a tough moment to be optimistic considering the desperate situation against the Penguins, but the Flyers are good, although not yet good enough. They were middle of the pack in goals, goals against, and power-play percentage this season, and were horrific on penalty kills. They don't lack will, or coaching, or direction. They lack talent, but that appears to be on the way.