IT ONLY took one punch. The Flyers were down for the count.
Just 71 seconds after Mike Richards dropped the gloves to defend himself, presumably for his hit on Florida's David Booth back on Oct. 24, Nathan Horton's deflected power-play goal smothered the Flyers last night.
Horton's goal, which gave Florida a one-goal lead fewer than 5 minutes into the game, was too much for the Flyers to handle. They lost, 4-1, and are now 3-14-0 this season when trailing first in a game.
"It seemed like we got down a goal and it went south pretty quick," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "We stopped making plays. We lost our steam a little bit. We were not sharp in any area. We need to play with a purpose."
Last night, it seemed as if the Flyers - in what finished as an ugly loss - played with no purpose. They couldn't skate, they couldn't score and they couldn't keep the Panthers' power play off the board.
The Flyers are 2-7-1 under Laviolette. Now losers of 14 of their last 17 games, the season is officially on life-support.
After the loss, though, Richards said the Flyers haven't yet hit rock bottom.
"It's when you stop working that you're going to have trouble," Richards said. "When you don't score goals and you're frustrated, it's kind of easy to point blame and make excuses."
Chris Pronger could do little more than shake his head. Pronger thought his team had already seen the worst.
"I thought we had already seen that before," Pronger said.
Florida's first three goals all came on the power play. Horton's goal came courtesy of a mindless Scott Hartnell tripping penalty and Stephen Weiss followed up Danny Briere's double-minor penalty with a power-play goal to start the second period.
Rather than fight back, the Flyers just collapsed.
The Flyers' lackluster offense had just two scoring chances after Briere's hard take to the net on the first shift of the game. They made Florida's Tomas Vokoun look like a Vezina Trophy candidate.
Although the Flyers outshot Florida, 31-30, just three of those shots had any quality. Braydon Coburn's goal with 6:13 remaining in the game, to blow Vokoun's shutout, was nothing more than padding for a bumpy descent for the Flyers.
"A lot of it is frustration," Jeff Carter said. "We don't have confidence right now to go out and make plays."
When trying to make a sprawling save on Weiss' goal that gave the Panthers a 2-0 lead, Brian Boucher cut his right ring finger. Michael Leighton played the final 38 minutes and allowed another two goals.
Michael Frolik's hard, undeflected wrister that gave Florida a 3-0 lead early in the third period caught Leighton off-guard. Horton added a second goal fewer than 5 minutes later.
What was left of a sparse Wachovia Center crowd gave Leighton a Bronx cheer when he made a breadbasket save with a little more than 10 minutes remaining in the third period.
The fans had already given up with 14 minutes remaining, reciting their first "E-A-G-L-E-S" chant of the Flyers season. By that time, boos were raining from the stands with each touch of the puck.
"That's what's great about Philly," Ian Laperriere said. "They let you know when they're happy with you and they let you know when they're not happy with you. They should. If you can't take that, you're in the wrong business."
The Flyers squandered yet another two points against a team that they will ultimately be chasing for a playoff spot in April. Last night, the Panthers got the last laugh for Richards' hit on Booth - and hit the Flyers where it hurt the most.
"Every game is important," Laviolette was saying before the game. "We've got a lot of games left and we're going to need a whole bunch of them. They can't just come against teams we're battling with.
"It's always helpful to beat a Florida, or the Rangers, or Tampa Bay, teams that you're kind of bunched in with. But every game becomes an emphasis at this point."
Before the Flyers can even think about frying the big fish, they need to prove capable of catching the little ones.
Brian Boucher suffered a lacerated right ring finger, cut from Michael Frolik's close-range shot. He received "more than a few" stitches and has no timetable for when he will return. Last night was Boucher's ninth consecutive start in place of Ray Emery, who had abdominal surgery on Dec. 9.
General manager Paul Holmgren had no update for Boucher, other than to say that Johan Backlund has been re-called from AHL Adirondack to back up Michael Leighton in Tampa Bay tomorrow night.
There were nine major penalties and two 10-minute misconducts handed out last night . . . Riley Cote, who played in place of Mika Pyorala, skated just 64 seconds . . . James van Riemsdyk, who sat out a portion of the second period, was the Flyers' lone plus . . . Florida's Nathan Horton had more shots (six) than Mike Richards and Jeff Carter combined (five).
For more news and analysis, read Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at http://go.philly.com/frequentflyers.