The Flyers probably feel like drinking paint thinner this morning, especially if they watched Tuesday night's Penguins-Islanders playoff game. Because it is happening again -- that is, beach balls are finding their way past Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury -- and, well, the Flyers have to be thinking that it could have been them.
The Flyers missed the playoffs by six points, and they deserved to miss them for all of the reasons that everyone has been talking about for weeks. But the what-if here is tantalizing because the Flyers ousted the Penguins in the first round of last year's playoffs in a wild, wide-open, thoroughly rambunctious series -- one in which Fleury was also having problems with the aforementioned beach balls -- and because the underdog Islanders are now tied at 2-2 with the Penguins in the same kind of series.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma is now in the midst of one of those why-he-makes-the-big-money days. After Fleury looked terrible on Tuesday night, Bylsma refused to say who his goaltender would be for Game 5. After last spring, the Pens went out and got a more than capable backup, Tomas Vokoun -- and now the coach has to make the decision that will define the rest of the first round.
(NOTE: Bylsma has made the decision. It's Vokoun for Game 5.)
Earlier this season, when the Flyers visited Pittsburgh for a game, Bylsma surprised everyone, at least mildly, by going with Vokoun. One of his explanations was interesting: that he had decided Vokoun was going to play at least one game against the Flyers this season. He did not explain why, but everyone understood -- that the games between the two teams can devolve into circuses, and he wanted to see if Vokoun would do any better on the trapeze than Fleury had done last spring.
As it turns out, Vokoun looked as bad as Fleury had looked, and spent much of the night on all-fours during another wild Flyers-Penguins game. So there was no obvious answer.
The fact is that the Flyers spent about 85 percent of the season looking nothing like the fierce, aggressive team they had been the previous spring against Pittsburgh. We can argue about the reasons -- but, well, not now. The only observation to be made here is that the Flyers were coming on at the end of the season -- either because the pressure was off because the playoffs were such a long-shot, or because goaltender Steve Mason's acquisition raised everyone a bit, or because a slew of defensive injuries caused coach Peter Laviolette to simplify things and the team thrived amid that simplicity. Again, argue away.
But they were coming on. And they did feel as if they had a bit of a blueprint against the Penguins. And if Fleury looked shaky again, well, you know.
And here we are.
It would have been wild, again. And if Bylsma is feeling the heat now about his goaltending decision, you just know that Laviolette would have been dancing on the same griddle, and likely even earlier in the series. It would have been great writing, great fun, the kind of compelling intersection of story lines that can make playoff hockey impossible to resist.
But, no. And while it is fun to dream, the only certainty is that what-ifs are for losers.