Listening to the Flyers after Thursday's practice, you'd think it was a good thing to be on all fours, scrambling for a playoff spot on the final weekend of the season.

"This is pretty neat, coming down to the wire like this," general manager Paul Holmgren said. "It's a pretty neat scenario."

"It's a fun time of the year," forward Danny Briere said. "It's like the playoffs started a little early. What I like is that we don't need help from anyone else."

The reality is that the Flyers already have gotten plenty of help from other teams. They remain in the playoff field despite winning just three of their last 10 games. They slid to ninth place, then jumped back up to seventh with victories over Detroit, which was resting rookie goaltender Jimmy Howard, and stone-cold-dead Toronto this week. These were wins the Flyers had to have, but not exactly inspirational triumphs.

So the excited chatter felt a little like a slacker college student's boasting about how he can still pass a class by acing the final. All the missed assignments and failing grades up until now? They just don't matter anymore.

This may sound like blasphemy to the orange-and-black faithful, but you can make a pretty good case that the Flyers would be better off in the long run if they fail this final exam. Would it be better to sneak into the playoffs - likely to be terminated quickly by Washington or New Jersey - and fool themselves into thinking they'd be contenders but for some bad luck? Or would it be better to get totally washed out and have to confront reality?

And which is reality?

The Flyers have had some bad luck, especially with injuries to goaltenders. But then, no one told them to let the perfectly competent Marty Biron walk. And no one told them to put all of their stock in the volatile Ray Emery. That's what they did, and this is where it got them - counting on Brian Boucher to carry the team until Michael Leighton can return from a serious ankle injury.

That is the up-close view. The wider angle reveals a more troubling picture of a franchise steadily losing ground to its Eastern Conference rivals.

A couple of years ago, the Flyers had a core of young players who eliminated Washington in the first round, blew past Montreal, and played Pittsburgh tough in the conference final despite a rash of injuries to their defensemen. Last year, the Flyers were eliminated in the first round by the Penguins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Now the Flyers are desperately clinging to hope for a seventh or eighth seed while Washington is winning the Presidents Trophy for best regular-season record and the Penguins and Devils are primed to make deep playoff runs.

Washington has Alex Ovechkin. Pittsburgh has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. To compete with that kind of star power, the Flyers had to surround their somewhat dimmer stars with more depth, plus a sound defense and a difference-making goaltender. They had to combat great individual players with a better overall team.

They haven't done that. Not even close. If anything, this feels less like a cohesive unit, like a team, than anything the Flyers have put on the ice in five years.

While failing the exam and missing the playoffs might force a more merciless self-appraisal, there is a flip-side argument for the value of beating the Rangers and getting into the postseason.

For one thing, you just never know. The Flyers could match up with the Devils, a team they have beaten five times in six meetings, in the first round. Winning a series would actually represent progress over last year, even if it didn't really mean the Flyers are any closer to contending for the Cup.

For another, even a token playoff appearance will give everyone that much more to go on when evaluating these players and this chemistry. How will Leighton play, if he's able to return in time? How will James van Riemsdyk react in a playoff atmosphere? Can Mike Richards, whose captaincy has been criticized, rally the troops when it matters most?

And what about coach Peter Laviolette? We've seen encouraging glimpses of what his system looks like when executed well. Watching him maneuver a team through the thrust-and-parry of a playoff series would tell us something about Laviolette and even more about how he views his players.

There's no truth quite as revealing as the "time on ice" numbers in a Game 6.

The Flyers' attitude going into this weekend is the right one. They have to approach this as an opportunity - win and they're in - but they pass only if you grade this class on a sharp, sharp curve.