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Phil Sheridan: Flyers' hopes revive somewhat

What seems delusional one day can sound inspired the next. All it takes is one convincing shutout victory on the road in a potential elimination game.

What seems delusional one day can sound inspired the next. All it takes is one convincing shutout victory on the road in a potential elimination game.

For a week, Flyers coach John Stevens set the tone, saying his club was playing well enough to win and that good things eventually would follow. Had the Flyers gotten bounced out of the first round in five games, it would have been fair to wonder if Stevens' apparent complacency was a sign that he was past his expiration date as head coach.

But the Flyers didn't get bounced. They bounced back. Because they did, they get a chance to play this afternoon at the Wachovia Center in what veteran Mike Knuble predicted "could be one of the better games at that arena, in the history of the rink."

It certainly shapes up as an intense one. The Pittsburgh Penguins are the Flyers' most bitter rivals at this point. They beat the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals last May. They sport two of the game's very best players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. So this would be like the Charles Barkley Sixers beating the Michael Jordan Bulls in a playoff round, or the Phillies beating the Mets in the divisional series.

Only, you know, with some of the players requiring stitches.

If Stevens would have taken some blame for a collapse, it's fair to give him credit that his team went to Pittsburgh and made this thing interesting. The mantra - that the Flyers just had to keep up what they were doing - may turn out to be the key to keeping this team from folding up when it fell behind three games to one.

"We feel pretty confident," defenseman Kimmo Timonen said after an optional practice at the Skate Zone in Voorhees yesterday. "I don't know how they're feeling."

Stevens does not coach in a way that generates excitement from the fans. He comes from the same "flatline" school as Andy Reid and, in some ways, Charlie Manuel. There isn't the ranting and raving that creates the impression the coach is a hard case. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that modern players respond more to being treated like grownups.

But Stevens has done more than maintain an even keel here. He has outcoached Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma in this series. Bylsma has the superstars, the team that played in the Stanley Cup finals, and the home-ice advantage. And yet Stevens' team has, for the most part, dictated the action since its one horrendous performance back in Game 1.

"When you play the same team in a series like that, you start to know tendencies," Flyers goalie Marty Biron said. "You start to play the matchup game, the system game, where you tweak your system here and there to try to counter what the other team is doing. We've got some great hockey people that understand the game."

The Flyers and Penguins have played each other 22 times in the last two seasons, including playoff games. That's a lot of exposure to each other's personnel and coaching strategies - although Bylsma has been in place only since mid-February, when he replaced Michel Therrien.

Reduced to the bottom line, Bylsma's job is to free up Crosby and Malkin to create offense. Stevens' job is to find ways to contain them while getting enough scoring from his own more-balanced lineup to win four games.

Put it that way and Stevens has the edge. Each game, the Flyers have gotten better at keeping Crosby and Malkin from getting free in the middle of the ice. They have put more physical pressure on them, especially Crosby. And they have countered when Bylsma has combined the two on one line in an effort, as Stevens put it, "to get them lost a little bit" in the crowd.

"We know their game, we know their system, we know their tendencies," Biron said. "It's about playing the way we need to play in our zone, covering the guys we need to cover, frustrating them a little bit. It's not like it was in the '80s when one guy was in charge of Gretzky and followed him all over the ice. They're huge competitors. They keep coming."

There is a price for playing so hard at the defensive end. The Flyers' top lines, centered by Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, have not been as effective on offense. In a way, that's a promising sign. The Flyers have survived with goals from Arron Asham and Claude Giroux. It should be a matter of time before Carter, Richards and Danny Briere get it going.

If this series is going to Game 7, today would be a very good time. And if that happens, it is not delusional to believe the Flyers can complete the comeback.