THE FLYERS showed they were in the spirit of the holidays last night by giving a game away.
It was late in the second period and they had a Phoenix team that was at the end of an East Coast road trip on the ropes. The Flyers held a two-goal lead and were on a power play.
But then a gaffe by defenseman Randy Jones opened the door and the Coyotes roared back and eventually won, 3-2.
Ho, ho, ho, the Flyers have now lost four in a row, one in a shootout.
They've also lost nine of their last 14, a skid that directly contributed to general manager Paul Holmgren trading Ben Eager to Chicago for veteran defenseman Jim Vandermeer.
"Nobody's happy with the way things are going around here," Holmgren said. "We felt the need to shake things up a little bit. We've got some injury issues on our defense that we have to face up and this certainly gives us some insurance."
Vandermeer, 27, made his NHL bones in the Flyers' organization. He played parts of three seasons for the Phantoms and was with the Flyers for 2 years before getting traded to the Windy City on Feb. 19, 2004, in the deal that brought Alexei Zhamnov to Philadelphia. Zhamnov's Flyers career lasted 20 games. Vandermeer has become a 20-minute-per-game defenseman.
"Jim can play in all situations," Holmgren said. "He can play power plays, kill penalties and play a regular shift. He'll bring a lot of character and a lot of determination to our team."
A players-only meeting followed last night's disappointing loss. Captain Jason Smith said the team "talked as a group [about] basically the effort and the execution. It wasn't good tonight. We need to compete at a lot higher level and work a lot harder."
R.J. Umberger was not one of those guys that needed to work harder. Up on his skates throughout the night, Umberger opened the scoring by going around Coyotes defenseman Nick Boyton and feathering a pass through Zbynek Michalek. Scott Hartnell easily deflected the puck past Ilja Bryzgalov.
Mike Richards is 20th in the latest All-Star balloting among East forwards, but probably will earn himself a few more write-in votes when the highlight of his 16th goal of the season is shown.
Richards stripped Ed Jovanovski, a former Flyers nemesis when he was a youngster with Florida, and walked in from the blue line to beat Bryzgalov with a backhander.
The Flyers still held a 2-1 lead when Jones made his costly mistake. Pressing in the offensive zone on the power play, Jones was unable to keep the puck inside the blue line. Coyotes captain Shane Doan pounced on the mistake, skated down the ice, did a nice little pirouette move and found a streaking Fredrik Sjostrom for a critical shorthanded goal. Jones should have picked up Sjostrom, as well. A Peter Mueller goal off a scrum 6:25 into the third period was the game-winner.
"We've got to find some excitement in the little things in the game that make a big difference," Stevens said. "Getting pucks out of our end, turning pucks over, giving up a shorthanded goal, it's a recipe for disaster."
The Flyers allowed 42 shots, something they hope to cut down when Vandermeer becomes acclimated to the lineup. His presence means a bit of a logjam on defense, especially considering Kimmo Timonen returned last night after missing two games with a "lower- body" injury. Timonen played 23:29. Smith and Derian Hatcher also have been banged up. Vandermeer is in the last year of his contract.
"We have a couple days to think about that," Holmgren said. "Hopefully, we can get him in for practice and see how things shake out. We have to shuffle the deck a little bit."
Eager was an expendable commodity. He was averaging 5:29 minutes when he was in the lineup, and was scratched last night.
But this loss wasn't about Ben Eager, Randy Jones or even Martin Biron. This was about a team in its own building failing to go for the jugular.
"We have got to play a lot better and capitalize a lot better," Smith said. "We definitely had an opportunity to win this game and we gave it away."
Simon Gagne participated in yesterday's morning warmup, but it's unclear when he'll get back in the lineup. Gagne has missed the last 18 games and 22 of 24 with a concussion. The Flyers are 7-3 with him, 9-10-3 without him . . . The Flyers are off for 2 days before visiting Buffalo on Friday. The Sabres return the favor by visiting Philadelphia on Saturday . . . Comcast cable subscribers in Philadelphia and Bucks County had to endure a blank TV screen for as much as 35 minutes when service went out during last night's game. *