THE CONSISTENCY of the Flyers' inconsistency has been consistent. It's also a bit frustrating.

The Flyers have played 32 games, more than a one-third of the season, with the midway point just around the corner.

Does anyone have a clear read on this team? And at this point, shouldn't we at least have some idea?

What is the nature of this team?

Is it the one that sprinted to a 6-1 start or the one that then went 3-5 on an eight-game road trip?

Since finishing that road trip with a 4-1 loss at New Jersey, the Flyers have been almost exactly a .500 team.

After losing, 3-2, to the Phoenix Coyotes last night at the Wachovia Center, the Flyers have won seven of their last 17 games, with seven losses, one overtime loss and two shootout losses.

Last night's loss was a mini-version of the way things have gone for the Flyers of late.

With goals by Scott Hartnell and Mike Richards, the Flyers took a 2-0 lead late into the second period.

Then with a little more than 3 minutes remaining, Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle scored his first goal of the season, and with 22 seconds left, Fredrik Sjostrom put in a shorthanded goal to tie the score at 2.

A goal by Peter Mueller 6 1/2 minutes into the third period sent the Flyers to their season-high fourth consecutive loss, one of them a shootout loss.

The Good. The Bad. The Ugly.

"When you're up, 2-0, like that, a team shouldn't be able to go out there and get what [Phoenix] got," Flyers goalie Martin Biron said. "We have to get that game. You're up, 2-0, you're in your building and it's late in the second period, you should be up, 2-0, at the end of the third."

After losing for the eighth time in the last nine games at the Wachovia Center, the Flyers had a short team meeting.

"As a group, we don't doubt that we can play and beat any team in this league," Flyers captain Jason Smith said. "We're just not putting it on the ice right now.

"We're not executing as hard as we need to. We're not working as hard as we need to."

Right now, the Flyers are a middle-of-the-pack team in the Eastern Conference, and maybe that's all they are destined to be.

Still, constantly riding the roller coaster is never a strong position from which to operate.

"That's a good question," coach John Stevens said of the take-and-give nature of his team. "We've talked about building an identity all year. We started the year with a 6-1 start and since then, we've been a .500 or sub-.500 hockey team.

"It's tough to make ground in this league the way it is and as tight as it is. Coming into today, all we did was give ourselves a chance to compete for a playoff spot. Now it's up to us what we do from here."

A team that knows itself dictates the way a game is played. Stevens said the Flyers let the Coyotes determine the style of last night's game.

Stevens said the Flyers need to find a way to derive more energy from some of the subtler aspects of the game.

"I really believe we have to find the energy in the little things that we do well to fuel the rest of our game," Stevens said. "We can't go out there and only get energized by goals and scoring chances.

"We have to get energy from our team games, little things in our end, winning puck battles all over the ice. That's got to be as important to us as a scoring chance or a goal. That's not happening for us now, and it needs to start."

Maybe the Flyers are just showing who they are with their up-and-down play.

In the midst of a season, it's easy to forget how young this team is, that 11 players on last night's roster had less than five full seasons of NHL experience.

After the quick start, it was easy to set aside the nightmare of last season that resulted in a league low in points.

And to be fair, if you look at where the Flyers are, compared with where they had to come from, they are infinitely better than the team that finished last season.

Still, you want more, because you've seen the flashes of potential for more.

"You've got to work harder and you've got to create breaks," Smith said. "You can't be satisfied with working hard and losing games.

"That's not what is happening here, but we've got to play a lot better, compete a lot better and capitalize a lot better . . . We need to refocus and individually bring our best games to our team game every night. If everybody just brings a little bit more, we'll get back to getting results and playing the way we can." *

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