THE LOSS was no more than a half-hour old.

One after another, the players, the coach, the general manager, the chairman were all expressing shock and wondering what could have gone wrong, when it went wrong, how it went wrong, and, ultimately, what needed to be done about it.

There were no immediate answers.

The Flyers had blown a three-goal lead in a Stanley Cup elimination game at home in front of a frenzied crowd, ending a season that started with the feeling that success would be measured against the success of last year.

This was supposed to be a better season. The core of the team was back and bearing the fruits of experience from advancing to the conference finals last season. They were healthier; the injuries of last spring did not exist.

Yet still, there the Flyers were Saturday afternoon, stunned into silence by a five-goal comeback win by the Pittsburgh Penguins and forced into a summer of wondering.

"It just ended. I barely had time to take my stuff off. The next couple of days we'll have a lot of time to analyze the situation. It's just frustrating right now," said Mike Richards, the 24-year-old first-year captain. "Coming into the playoffs everyone was feeling so high and confident about themselves and then to have it end like this is disappointing.

"It's tough to say what happened, tough to analyze things when you just finished. There are different kinds of perspectives on things until you actually have time to sit down and relax and think about it.

"I'll probably have a lot of days sitting on my boat wondering what could have been. It's tough with all the coulda, shoulda, wouldas."

And so it ended, and the summer of "tinkering," as chairman Ed Snider termed the necessary moves, will begin in the next few days. Today the lockers will get cleaned out and the players' exit interviews will begin.

Meetings with general manager Paul Holmgren, coach John Stevens and his staff, and team president Peter Luukko and Snider will follow; all of the discussions will center on how to improve.

The player moves are both simple and complex: Simple because what the Flyers need is easily identifiable, but complex because with the salary-cap NHL, nothing is easy.

The Flyers need to re-sign one of their free-agent goalies or go out and get a new one. They need a centerman who can win a faceoff; Pittsburgh won 58 percent of the faceoffs Saturday, a trend all season on a team so deep in centers that Danny Briere was moved to wing.

And they need to get tougher on defense. That is a glaring problem. No one fears going into the Flyers' crease because there is no one to make them pay the price.

And those are just the personnel moves. But there is something else missing on the Flyers, that intangible that allows a team to lose steam, and confidence, and go into a shell of itself, just as it happened Saturday.

If it was just that span beginning 4 minutes, 35 seconds into the second period, when Rusty Fedotenko got to a puck punched open by Evgeni Malkin, it could be different.

But that goal was very telling. Fedotenko had Braydon Coburn right beside him, Malkin had undressed Matt Carle behind the net. No one paid the price.

And then the air went out of the Flyers, the building and the season.

A team that at times teemed with character suddenly had none. And it is something that happened more than a few times this season.

Yes, they suffered injuries that required fast changes on defense and pushed the cap situation to the point that adding any one significant at the trade deadline was out of the question. They lost personnel at the deadline, and it cost them a chunk of what chemistry they had.

But the way the Flyers played this series was a model of what happened all season.

They started playing with a Game 1 effort that was without energy and commitment to detail after a 2-week period where they lost confidence and couldn't nail down the fourth seed that they held for most of the season, thus losing home ice. They played that game like they shouldn't be where they were, like it should have been different, or easier.

It was a lot like the start of the season when they went six games without winning, playing like it should have been easier for an Eastern Conference finalist to get their first wins.

They got their act together and then started playing like a contender, piling up points and proving they were indeed a better team this season, just like they did in the Pittsburgh series from the middle of Game 2 to the middle of Game 6.

And then they lost their way, couldn't finish the regular season on anything but a whimper, losing home ice in the final game when they needed just one point, just like what happened Saturday from the time the Penguins scored their first goal.

This team has been a puzzle. It has a young and talented core and a good young coach. But the Flyers couldn't motivate themselves at the right times, and they were defensive when criticized.

They sometimes challenged their coach's assessment of a game or situation, and even balked at the general manager's suggestion that they needed an attitude adjustment. There were times when the players seemed like it was no big deal and other times when they recognized the urgency of a situation. They were incredibly undisciplined in so many games, and then disciplined again when they wanted to be.

There is something wrong, something that the core of this young team needs to fix. And they need help from the veterans.

Briere missed much of the season with a groin and abdominal injury, but he nailed it in the postgame locker room.

"I wasn't looking at comparing to last year," he said. "I don't really know exactly what happened, but we definitely kind of lost our momentum. I can compare it back to when I was in Buffalo, that one year when we won the Presidents' Trophy.

"It's like we were in that area where we couldn't go up, we couldn't go down, it was kind of this way. We were always in fourth, we were always eighth or 10 points from third place or from Jersey. We were always six or eight points ahead of Pittsburgh or Carolina, and we were just too casual about it.

"We mentioned it many times. It's not a switch that you turn on and off as you want. It definitely cost us in game number one. After that I think we played some pretty good games in the series. We got some bad breaks, but the fact of the matter is that we weren't playing our best hockey coming in to the playoffs." *

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