PITTSBURGH - Raw emotion is like a shot of adrenaline. It can lift a team for a little while, but sooner or later it wears off.
The Flyers were hit with two shots of pure emotion before Game 1 of their showdown series with the Penguins here last night.
First, defenseman Kimmo Timonen unexpectedly appeared. A day after being shocked by the news that a blood clot would keep Timonen from playing in this series, here he was in the flesh to rally "the boys."
Then, coach John Stevens told his team about something that happened across the state a few hours earlier. Matt Liczbinski, the 24-year-old son of fallen Philadelphia Police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski, briefly turned his father's funeral into a Flyers pep rally.
The echoes of "Let's go, Flyers" reached from SS. Peter and Paul Basilica to the dressing room at Mellon Arena - stirring proof of the power of sports to bond families and unite communities even in hard times.
For a hockey team preparing for the biggest game of its collective life, it was another wild swerve on the emotional roller coaster.
The Flyers rode that coaster onto the ice, but it was no surprise it couldn't carry them for 60 minutes. The Penguins are too talented and too physical, too determined and too driven, to be run over on their home ice. The Flyers went from spirited to shaky, from inspired to inconsistent.
"We know what we can do to play well," goaltender Marty Biron said. "We did that for the first 10 minutes of the first period."
They have now lost Game 1 of each of their three playoff series. In the first two rounds, they came back and won Game 2, then went on to take the series.
This Game 1 was different, though. The Penguins are simply better than the Washington Capitals and the Montreal Canadiens. Evgeni Malkin is the best player the Flyers have faced, delivering where Alex Ovechkin and Alex Kovalev simply did not. Marc-Andre Fleury is the best goaltender the Flyers have faced. For the first time in these playoffs, Biron was not the better netminder.
That doesn't mean the Flyers can't compete with the Penguins. They can. It just means they have to play near-perfect hockey to have a chance, and that is not something they've shown an aptitude for doing. They were able to blow two-goal leads against the Caps and the Habs and still win. Those days are gone.
The Flyers briefly had a 2-1 lead in the first period, courtesy of two pure-effort goals by Mike Richards. Biron, who is not exactly Ron Hextall as a puck handler, made an awful clearing attempt that went right to Marian Hossa along the boards. Hossa sent the puck back toward the net, where Sidney Crosby deflected it past the scrambling Biron.
"I made some terrible plays in the first period with the puck," Biron said. "I personally was responsible for a big goal that tied the game up. I've got to be better."
That's about where the Flyers' adrenaline rush came to a crashing halt.
They were sloppy with the puck near the end of the period, which led to Malkin's wicked wrist shot past Biron. Malkin was inches from being offside - and many Flyers fans no doubt believe he was - but it was the Flyers' carelessness that made the goal possible.
"It was close," Stevens said. "They probably made the right call. . . . It was a turnover. If you turn pucks over and give rushes to Malkin and Crosby, that's a game you can't play."
Malkin's second goal, a shorthanded blast in the second period, came at the end of a sequence that began with a careless pass by Randy Jones in the offensive zone. Jones was filling in for Timonen on the Flyers' power play.
There is no use wondering if Timonen's presence would have been the difference between a win and a loss. He certainly would have helped, but then, he played in those two previous Game 1 losses. This team seems to need an early setback just to get its bearings.
What is certain is that the timing couldn't have been worse for the Flyers. Stevens spent the four-day layoff putting together a Timonen-heavy plan to counter Malkin and Crosby, then learned 24 hours before the puck dropped that Timonen would not be there.
"The biggest thing was our power play," Richards said. "We played over 90 games with him, having chemistry with the players. Having another player come in kind of hurts you. It's something we're going to have to deal with."
Last night, they were dealing with a mix of emotions that had nothing, and everything, to do with hockey. They handled the emotions. The Penguins were another matter.