PITTSBURGH - Certainly not today but probably more like a month from now, the feeling of disappointment will begin to fade and be replaced by a sense of accomplishment.

After losing 6-0 to the Pittsburgh Penguins yesterday at Mellon Arena, the Flyers' season came to end in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.

It's a conclusion that is never easy to accept in the moments that immediately follow a loss, especially such a lopsided one.

"We're going to take a few days to be able to reflect on the season, and the good and the bad and what we've done," goalie Martin Biron said. "It will take a couple of days to be able to appreciate it. Right now, it's not fun and definitely hard - how close we were and knowing that there's even more to do to achieve our goal.

"It's not fun."

The Flyers, with their backs to the wall, fell behind on two first-period goals and never caught up. Sidney Crosby banked a power-play shot off of Ryan Malone's skate and through Biron's legs. Later, Evgeni Malkin stuffed one into the net while Biron was without a stick.

Malone also figured in that goal, pinning Biron and his stick on the boards behind the net when the goalie came out to play the puck. Biron lost his stick and was unable to fend off Malkin, giving Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead and forcing the Flyers to chase the game.

Pittsburgh scored three more times in the second period and again in the third to make the loss a stinging one.

"They came out strong. It was just one of those games where we didn't have it right from the get-go," the Flyers' Mike Richards said. "They played well. A couple of bounces here and there and all of a sudden we're behind the eight ball, and they roll with it.

"It's still pretty early to reflect," he said. "I'm extremely disappointed with the way that game finished up and the season finished up. We've overcome so much this year. To do it with the guys in the locker room, I had a great time and coming to the rink everyday was fun, but it's still disappointing."

It was a bitter end to a good playoff run that ended too soon.

But given time for reflection, the feeling should begin to turn from disappointment to optimism.

There is a lot to like about this team, and the strides it has made should lead to even better things.

Beginning with the final two games of the season, the Flyers grew as a team, and as players and coaches. They beat the third-seeded Washington Capitals and then the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens.

They grew as individuals and players - players like Mike Richards, R.J. Umberger and Randy Jones. And Ryan Parent, who was pressed into service in the final three playoff games and fit in.

And the postseason experience was invaluable.

"I see it as a great steppingstone," coach John Stevens said. "We handled a lot of adversity . . . Look at Washington, we let a series slip back. And we won Game 7, were able to move on. And Montreal, we had some issues in the series we were able to iron out and move on.

"I thought we had the ability to right the ship and keep moving on, learn lessons and still keep our season alive. But there's no question we need to get better."

They might have had a better shot to compete against the second-seeded Penguins if not for the loss of top defenseman Kimmo Timonen on the eve of the series and Braydon Coburn in the second game.

Coburn was still unable to play yesterday, but Timonen made a heroic return and played with a blood clot still in his left ankle. The Penguins, however, had not lost on home ice since February and have won all eight of their home playoff games. And, a 3-1 series deficit is not an easy mountain to climb.

Still, the Flyers have made a move on the mountain they were staring at after last season.

Consider that just a year ago, every one of these Flyers was on vacation and contemplating his future. Guys who were with the team last season had been done for weeks and still carrying the embarrassment of finishing last in the NHL.

Others, like Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Joffrey Lupul and Jason Smith were thinking about what was next, where they would live, what team they would play for and where they would be in the spring.

For a rebuilt team buried in the basement, one playoff round would have been a success and two a bigger achievement.

But to reach the Eastern Conference final, to be one of only four teams still playing . . .

Who could say that this has not been a resounding success for the Flyers and a beacon for the future?

"I haven't even thought about that yet," Umberger said. "I've been so focused on winning this series. I guess if you look at it that way, the season is not a disappointment.

"We've got a lot of guys going here, some younger guys that are getting older and on the verge of getting more experience. Our nucleus is still building. I think we've got this organization back to where it should be."

In the year since the bell sounded on the worst season in franchise history, this team has been transformed and set on a path that should lead to better things.

They have talent signed for the long-term. Kids like Richards and Coburn, and veterans like Daniel Briere, Timonen, Hartnell, and Simon Gagne, who will be back next season after missing most of this one with a concussion.

They have a goalie under contract for at least another year in Biron, and veterans up front in the same situation in Lupul, Mike Knuble and Sami Kapanen. And they have more youth and potential in players like Parent, Steve Downie and Claude Giroux.

There is work to be done, for sure. Umberger, Jeff Carter and Jones are a big part of this team and all will be without contracts today.

Carter, Umberger and Jones grew this season and their value increased enough to make them sought-after restricted free agents.

They will need to be re-signed and that will mean hard decisions on other players, possible trades and retirements.

And the team needs to add a mobile, offensive defenseman though free agency.

Most of that will begin this week, when general manager Paul Holmgren sits with his staff and his bosses to begin to map out a plan.

"It's funny because last Saturday when we were here, [Holmgren] and I actually sat down and began to talk about next season," Flyers president Peter Luukko said. "We'll be getting together immediately now.

"When you talk about going into the war room, you're talking about drafts and trades," Luukko said. "I don't think we have a lot to do. We have a great core.

"It's hard to describe in words what this season has been," he added. "To have the worst record in the league and then to have this kind of season, not only getting better during the regular season, but then having a run like this; these guys just never gave up." *