ON A LEVEL ice surface, without penalties and a sudden death, the Flyers strung together their best 60-minute effort in more than a month and beat the Pittsburgh Penguins last night.
Unfortunately for the Flyers, the scoreboard read differently after 65 minutes and four shooters. Penalties cost teams and shootouts really do determine winners in the National Hockey League.
Almost has never counted.
In a lot of ways, though, last night's 3-2 shootout loss felt like a win for the Flyers. After a stretch of 11 brutal losses in 14 games, salvaging one point against the defending Stanley Cup champions - less than 48 hours after getting blown out - is a moral victory.
"It's difficult to sit up here and say it was great," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "We left a point out there. The points are important. When you lose the breakaways, it's a loss.
"When you win the breakaways, it's almost like you did something better in the game. I thought the guys competed well. There was some consistency from the start until the end."
Kris Letang's head fake in Pittsburgh's first attempt in the shootout fooled Brian Boucher, and that was the difference. Sidney Crosby's flubbed shot - which Boucher said after the game went far from where he intended - was the icing on the cake.
But it was the Flyers' five-on-five play that was the real difference.
In this game, unlike Tuesday's 6-1 blowout loss, there were no brow-beating, odd-man rushes for the Penguins.
"There's a lot of good things that we did [last night]," Ian Laperriere said. "Our third man [in the neutral zone] was a little bit higher. Last game, we were too aggressive. We went where we shouldn't have gone.
"We played a good hockey game, we just didn't come out on top."
Jeff Carter's goal - a hard take to the net that has been sorely missed in their recent tailspin - just 75 seconds into the game put the Flyers on the right track.
Carter, skating with Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell, helped lead the Flyers' attack all game. Rather than settling for shots on the periphery, the Flyers battled through checks and got to the net.
"We did a better job with our neutral zone and our forwards attacking," Chris Pronger said.
It was a far different - and more confident - approach than Tuesday night's game.
"We know we can play with them," Carter said. "We've shown it in the past. We showed it [last night]. They're a team that we can beat, but we have to play our game plan."
The Flyers got away from their game plan on the penalty kill. Since their skid started on Nov. 20, the Flyers penalty kill has been consistently bad. Blair Betts' return from a dislocated right shoulder was supposed to help.
Both of Pittsburgh's goals in regulation were scored with the man advantage, as a result of the Flyers' unwillingness to challenge snipers and playmakers.
Heading into last night's game, Pittsburgh was second-to-last in the NHL in power-play efficiency. The Penguins, even with deft scorers like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar to quarterback the unit, were only converting at a 13.9 percent rate.
Rather than make it miserable on the Penguins, the Flyers' box setup huddled tighter and tighter, allowing Pittsburgh to get creative. Inside the box, the area that is supposed to be the danger zone has been a comfort zone for players like Bill Guerin.
Guerin knocked in a rebound just 2 feet in front of Boucher 47 seconds into Dan Carcillo's penalty in the first period to knot the game at one. Guerin's goal came just 2:33 after Carter gave the Flyers the lead.
Claude Giroux' power-play goal early in the second period gave the Flyers their edge back. After scoring twice in 21 games, Giroux has scored four goals in the Flyers' last six games.
But Crosby's blistering slap shot - on the power play again - from the faceoff dot to Boucher's left somehow found daylight to tie the game again.
The Flyers scratched and clawed to keep it that way.
By picking up the point, the Flyers actually fell one spot in the standings to 12th place in the Eastern Conference. But with an effort like that every night, the Flyers know the standings could quickly change.
"We're going to have success if we do that each and every night," Mike Richards said. "It's just finding ways to do it consistently."
Defenseman Oskars Bartulis only saw 4:20 of ice time last night . . . Dan Carcillo led the Flyers in hits (5) for the second game in a row . . . Jeff Carter's line, which included Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell, combined for 13 of the Flyers' 33 shots . . . The Flyers were credited with 12 giveaways, almost double Pittsburgh's seven . . . Last night broke the Flyers' second-longest streak in franchise history for consecutive games (18) without going into overtime or a shootout.
For more news and analysis, read Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at http://go.philly.com/frequentflyers.