PITTSBURGH - The general manager pointed to the coaches first, then the players.

The coach implied it started with the starting goalie, whom he played for the second consecutive day, then replaced.

The starting goalie, who moved quicker down the runway to the dressing room than he did trying to defend two of the three goals scored against him, credited Pittsburgh's skill and blamed his exit from yesterday's embarrassing, 7-1 loss to the Penguins - minus Sidney Crosby - on his competitiveness.

Welcome to the great Flyers meltdown of 2007-08, a season that began with such promise, a season that blossomed via a January hot streak that catapulted them to the top of their division - and a season now crumbling amid injuries, defensive ineptitude and a unmistakable lack of moxie that often has them acting as if scared teens in a horror movie.

"This time of year, you don't have intensity in your game, emotion in your game, you're not going to win games,'' Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said.

And where does the responsibility lie?

"I think this time of the year it relies on the coaches,'' he said.

Holmgren quickly added that it "comes down to the players, too,'' and, "It's up to each individual to prepare and play his best.

"Right now, we're not getting that . . . In Boston [Saturday] our effort was pretty good, especially in the second half of the game. To come back today and not have anything . . . I didn't think Pittsburgh was really charged up in the beginning of the game, either. But obviously they steamrolled us pretty good.''

Feared at season's onset for hard-hitting and spirited play that bordered on excessive, the Flyers who skated off the ice at Mellon Arena with heads down seems drained of any such swagger. They poked at pucks. Their forecheck has the intensity of an ice show.

The 3-2 overtime loss at Boston, where they gave up the tying goal with less than 27 seconds left in regulation, left the Flyers just a point ahead of idle Buffalo for the eighth and final playoff spot. More alarming, it was the second time in three games they gave away points via a late goal.

That, and Biron's 4-1 record and 2.41 goals-against average vs. Pittsburgh, were the reasons Flyers coach John Stevens gave for starting Biron, and he clearly laid much of the blame for this loss on Pittsburgh's four-shot, two-goal first period.

"We gave up four shots on the road,'' he said. "I thought we did the things we needed to do . . . ''

In Biron's defense, he had little of it yesterday. As he said, "Pittsburgh is a team that won't necessarily shoot a lot but look for the backdoor play and the great play,'' and he's exactly right. The Flyers outshot them, 6-4, in the first period, but the Penguins controlled both the puck and the play.

And that was the Flyers' best period.

In what has come to define the Flyers since the All-Star break, they struggled to clear the puck from their own zone, even when in full possession of it. Panicky defensive play, itchy forwards who leave early, lurch for too many pucks, or try to hit home runs with every pass - this is a team that asks for the trouble that comes its way almost every game, and not one suffering through a barrage of bad bounces.

You stand in your own goal crease in the last minute of regulation in Saturday's loss - as Jeff Carter did - it's not misfortune when the puck bounces off your leg and into your net. You clear your goalie from his crease the way 6-5 Braydon Coburn did to backup Antero Niittymaki after the Flyers had cut into Pittsburgh's three-goal lead on Mike Knuble's second-period goal, well, that's not bad luck. either.

Unless you are Niittymaki.

No question, injuries have interrupted the continuity this team was building in the season's early months, when it ran over the Penguins, 8-2 - with Crosby in the lineup. But the Flyers' late-season meltdown is as much about mettle as it is medical reports.

"To me, it looks like we're a little scared to make a play,'' said defenseman Kimmo Timonen. "We're too hesitant to really play hard on the forecheck. And when we don't do that we sit back and other teams are able to break us down pretty easy.''

So . . . now what? There are nine games left, enough time to correct what seems to be a collective collapse of organizational confidence. After tomorrow's home game against Atlanta, the Flyers finish with games within their division, against teams they match up well with - at least on paper.

"The next nine games we have to approach like, if you're not knowing what you're going to do, just work,'' Timonen said. "Go out there and have fun.'' *