SATURDAY'S game wasn't over when the first e-mail popped up.

"There has to be a reason they show up every other game. Please tell me what it is. Are they all on the same page [forgive the cliche]?

Lou Kessler, Phlorida Phlyer Phan, Sarasota Fl."

One period later, the Flyers finished following up a great road win with another embarrassing home loss, this one to the Dallas Stars, a team on the end of a long road trip and playing the second night in a row.

The Flyers, who had 2 days to practice, rest and recover from the win in Carolina on Wednesday, lost, 4-1, in a lackluster effort devoid of grit, determination and accountability.

It was stunning to watch, after the talk all week about taking ownership, and coming out ready to play. It also happened a week after I wrote that John Stevens deserves a contract extension before the end of the season. The e-mails on that were in the box before I turned on my laptop last Monday morning. They were all about how wrong I am, saying: If Stevens was so good, why can't this team play consistent hockey? I got the same thing in the press box, how it was his fault the team was not prepared.

Bunk and more bunk.

A coach is responsible to some degree to see that his team is motivated and has a game plan for every opponent.

The one thing I feel I know for sure is that between Stevens, and assistants Terry Murray, Jack McIlhargey, Joey Mullen and Reggie Lemelin, the staff has scouted the opposition and given the players a plan they could use to win a game.

But every time the players take the ice, they act like they are either wearing cement skates or waiting for someone else to start things up.

So what is Stevens supposed to do? Is he supposed to stand behind the bench with orange-and-black pompoms? Is he supposed to start benching players? Become a screamer? Turn mean?

Remember Ken Hitchcock and how mean he was to the poor players? He was fired last year. Then players said stuff like Stevens played the game, and how much they were looking forward to playing for him. They're now making him look bad.

You call this situation one thing - a crossroad.

Either the Flyers - the team with four former captains in the room and one of the largest payrolls in the league - take control of their own destiny, or forget talking about doing damage in the playoffs.

It's called taking ownership, and it's a conversation I've had with coaches and players all week. None of them has had the answer, but each agreed on one thing:

"It's not the coaches," Daniel Briere said before the game in Carolina. "It's us. We're professional athletes, we know how to play, and we get paid enough money, we should be able to motivate ourselves."

So play.

Here we go again

It won't be a huge surprise if the Flyers find themselves finally chastised by the league for players making dangerous hits.

Riley Cote

, elbow high and feet moving fast, rammed the Stars'

Matt Niskanen's

head into the boards behind the net in the final minutes of a hopeless game Saturday, knocking his helmet off and earning an ejection and an automatic head-shot review from league disciplinarian

Colin Campbell

.

Campbell already has suspended four Flyers this season for dangerous head shots.

Think he won't suspend Cote because Niskanen wasn't hurt? Think again.

Campbell suspended Coyotes defenseman Ed Jovanovski for a game for a head shot to Minnesota's Marian Gaborik, and he wasn't even ejected from the game, drawing only a 2-minute roughing call from the on-ice official.

Changes - finally

Two seasons were enough to know that eight games against division opponents are too many and that no games against teams in the Western Conference is too few. The league's Board of Governors voted (wisely) to go back to the prelockout schedule where each team plays every other at least once during the season.

In a league that has trouble marketing itself to non-traditional fans, getting stars like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin into all its buildings, as well as teams like the Flyers and Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks, is the right thing to do.

Traveling light

While we're speaking about change, Flyers goalie

Marty Biron

has a suggestion:

"I don't understand why the home team has to wear black. I don't like it and I want to go back to the home team wearing white. It's just a natural thing to want the home team to wear white."

Sorry, Marty. It's about selling the third jersey. You can change the hue of a dark jersey, make it an alternate third home jersey and sell it. You can't do that with a white jersey. Thus, the white stays away. *

Send e-mail to morane@phillynews.com