NINE DAYS ago, a 10-game winless streak morphing them from city darlings to city drudge, the Flyers found out two things: Peter Forsberg had officially abandoned them, and Vinny Prospal was being added.

The Flyers won that night, an improbable, 4-3 victory in Buffalo in which they rallied from three goals down and won on Danny Briere's shootout goal. Improbable not just because the Flyers' big-money free-agent acquisition scored against his old team, or that they rarely win shootouts, but because they had managed to fumble far better opportunities to win during their debilitating streak.

The Sabres also were having a very nice February at the time, and they were at home.

Buffalo had its own issues, however, boiling over a day later when the Sabres shipped their latest coveted star, defenseman Brian Campbell, to the San Jose Sharks. An unrestricted free agent, Campbell was considered unsignable by the small-market Sabres, one of the teams the NHL salary cap was supposed to help.

Instead, the Sabres have shed Briere, Chris Drury and now Campbell while maintaining a budget that is almost $5 million below the $40 million cap, and about $5 million below that of the Flyers.

The initial effect on both teams was measurable. Philadelphia, which had played itself out of the eight-team playoff mix with the streak, played itself right back into the group by winning three straight over conference rivals, recording points in the four games that preceded last night's rematch. After whupping up on woeful Nashville, the Sabres were themselves whupped upon by the red-hot Canadians, 6-2, then beaten by injury-depleted and slumping Detroit, 4-2, dropping three points behind the Flyers for the last spot in the volatile Eastern Conference race.

All that is a long-about way of saying the Sabres played last night's 5-2 victory over the Flyers as a survival game, even if the abundance of games left on the schedule suggested it was not.

"You look at it, they would have been up five points if we don't win this one,'' said Buffalo's Jason Pominville, who scored twice.

It is also a long-about way of saying that the Flyers have a hard time absorbing this concept, flipping into pond-hockey mode at the most inopportune parts of games, and schedule.

"Obviously, if you play up-and-down hockey against teams like the Rangers and Buffalo, you're going to lose,'' said Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen.

Then why, why, why?

"The thing right now is that we have a lot of new faces in our lineup,'' said Flyers coach John Stevens. "I think we've all got to do more to communicate and take care of these lapses -- 'You've got him.' 'I've got him.' 'You have time, you don't have time.'

"All these little things need to be in place if we are going to have some continuity and remove the hesitation.''

The Sabres scored their third goal when officials failed to call too many men on the ice. A tough break, sure, but not the kind that causes playoff teams to collapse the way the Flyers did. And yeah, the Flyers have plenty of excuses right now. One look at the list of guys who began this promising season and the ones now scrambling to keep it alive will tell you that. Few teams with three of their top scorers injured, with a revolving defense corps that offers a nightly hockey version of Russian roulette, are even in a position to grab a playoff spot.

But look around. The Penguins stayed afloat with Sid The Kid gone for 6 weeks. The Rangers have been ripped up by injuries. Buffalo trades away stars or lets them walk, yet manages to play for the future while playing now, too.

Clearly no one has taken the hits the Flyers have, but your team did not lose last night because of a lack of talent.

Focus, maybe.

But not talent.

Effort, perhaps. But not talent.

It wasn't a lack of talent that led to Buffalo's second goal. New face Jaroslav Modry simply let Maxim Afinogenov cut in front of the net with the politeness of a man opening a door for a lady. And maybe the third goal was a bad break, but the fourth and fifth goals were just bad hockey, with nary a blamable newcomer on the ice.

And maybe the game was, as Stevens said, like a game in a playoff series, when, "You win a game and you get all kinds of momentum, you lose a game, the momentum shifts.'' At home, against a team with as many doubts, the Flyers gift-wrapped that momentum.

It's not the stuff that champions are made of.

Not even close.


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