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Sam Donnellon: Who are the real Flyers?

PITTSBURGH - A year ago around this time, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren stood in the bowels of Mellon Arena and called out everyone. He said the players had to play more inspired, and the coaches had to get their message across better, too.

PITTSBURGH - A year ago around this time, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren stood in the bowels of Mellon Arena and called out everyone. He said the players had to play more inspired, and the coaches had to get their message across better, too.

There was no such proclamation yesterday, just some satisfied smiles. With two big road wins over the weekend, including yesterday's 3-1 stifling of the rival Penguins, the Flyers have put their arms around the fourth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. It's not a vice grip, but two points ahead of everybody else with more games to play than everybody else is certainly a contrast to the dire straits of last year at this time, when the team was amid a horrible slump.

John Stevens nearly lost his job from that. Yesterday, he stood outside the locker room a more certain man, lauding his team's effort and focus in the gritty win.

But there is a danger here, a danger that has dangled around this promising team all season. It's the danger of believing you are closer to winning a Stanley Cup than what reality suggests.

It's the danger of believing, as an organization, that you are better than you are.

The Phillies did it for years. The Eagles embrace it perennially in truly Orwellian fashion, their team president proclaiming one second that anything less than a Super Bowl championship is unacceptable, then lauding their infrastructure and regular-season successes the next. The Flyers frittered away the Lindros era because of perennial goaltending and backline problems, and maybe trouble dealing with the advent of system-playing teams like the Devils.

"I think that can happen," Stevens said after yesterday's victory. "Quite honestly it may have happened to us in the beginning of the year. We didn't compete as hard defensively as we needed to."

This year's Flyers edition, with its new young captain and some exciting young additions, was supposed to build on last season's run, Instead it stumbled at the start, climbed all the way to first place in its division during a December run and has ceded back into the parity-plagued populace since.

The Devils, whom the Flyers seemed to have finally eclipsed in terms of talent last year, come to town tonight closing in on Boston for the top spot in the conference, peaking, it would seem, perfectly. With the game's greatest-ever goalie, some new young shooters and that stifling system of theirs, they are once again many people's favorite Stanley Cup flavor.

Have they jumped over the Flyers? Are the Flyers once again chasing the evil empire of the Jersey Turnpike?

And what is this team's relationship to the team that made hockey's Final Four last year? Smarter? Wiser? Improved?

The same? Worse?

"We want to get our swagger back, to be honest with you," Stevens said. "I think sometimes we give the other team too much respect. We've got to start believing in ourselves.

We're a young team. I think we have to believe in ourselves more sometimes."

Stevens went on to say that he liked the poise his team showed yesterday, protecting a one-goal lead for the last 9:58 of the game. "Everybody kept their composure with the puck, didn't panic," he said. "Scottie Hartnell kept his feet moving, made sure he got the puck to the red line [on Darroll Powe's empty-net goal], got the puck deep. Those are all things that a veteran guy does. And I think you're seeing more of that from our young players. [Mike] Richards, [Jeff] Carter and [Joffrey] Lupul. I thought last year we were most intense at the end of the year."

It is that time. The Flyers have 11 games left in a regular season that truly has meant little in terms of gauging their maturation. They are still amazing at times, maddening at others. They played huge stretches of yesterday's game without the puck, but their resilience was admirable, and hopeful. The goalie played great again, and they've got a puncher's chance to make some noise, just like last season, when they upset two teams to reach the conference finals.

But they do seem stalled on a track right now, struggling at times with consistency and continuity. There is still time, of course - their core players are still in their early to mid-20s, and they seem to have a slew of future stars in the system. But there is a danger in counting on promise too much, in overvaluing your guys just because

they're your guys.

The Phillies did it once. The Eagles do it now. The Flyers, having chased those Devils all those Lindros years, should know better.

"I think we've got a long way to go, to be honest with you," Stevens said. "In terms of maturity. In terms of composure.

"I think they're just coming into their prime years with lots of years ahead of them." *

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