PETER LAVIOLETTE has a month to figure it out. Start the playoffs with the acrobatic kid who covers both sides of the net in the wink of an eye but who has shown a tendency to blink in big spots of games. Or launch with the veteran who has seen his share of rodeos, who plays big after soft goals, who sees the game through the sum of his experiences.

The race for first overall in the Eastern Conference? It's not quite a distraction, but it should be of secondary concern for Flyers fans thirsting for a Stanley Cup. One extra road game per round will not decide the Flyers' fate this spring. Health will. Goaltending will. As always.

Which is the primary intrigue to every single game this month, such as last night's home-ice match with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hunting for one of the final playoff spots - who isn't? - the Leafs came in as one of the hotter teams in the NHL. The Flyers had 4 days to wash away the taste of a 4-1 loss to lowly Ottawa, finishing the month of February with their lowest monthly point total since October.

Brian Boucher started that Ottawa game. Last night was 22-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky's turn. He faced 33 shots, made some spectacular saves, but this game will be remembered for the ones he didn't, the manner in which he didn't, and the timing of when he didn't.

The Flyers' first lead lasted 21 seconds and their second was extinguished with 11 seconds remaining in the second period. Toronto's winning goal came when Darryl Boyce came from the corner and shot it between the rookie's pads with 4 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in the game: a shot, Bobrovsky said later through an interpreter, he did not anticipate.

This loss was not on Bobrovsky. The Flyers played with more energy than they had against Ottawa Saturday, but there was plenty of mess going around. They surrendered seven power plays. They got caught with too many men on the ice.

"When you're doing something over and over again, maybe it's not uncharacteristic," Chris Pronger said. "Maybe you have to get rid of some bad habits."

He was talking about the team, the defense in particular, but the line could fit the young goalie as well. Earlier this week, Kimmo Timonem, one of the team's alternate captains, offered some mild criticism of the kid, saying he needed to improve his puckhandling and decision making.

There were several examples of that last night. Bobrovsky can be tentative pursuing pucks in that limbo area between the circles, flicking at pucks when he does venture out rather than directing them. It makes for unnecessary manic moments and, when the postseason arrives, those moments often dictate momentum.

It might have even done that last night. Sean O'Donnell picked up a holding penalty on such a play late in the first period. In the second period, mmediately after Kris Versteeg's second goal put the Flyers ahead, 2-1, a flip from the left point nearly trickled its way through Bobrovsky, igniting a furious momentum swing.

Bobrovsky said afterward that he thought he played well except for the third goal. And he did. He stunned Phil Kessels with a cross-the-crease block after the puck caromed onto his stick from a human maze on the opposite side. He stoned Nikolai Kulemin point-blank another time.

There are saves he makes that Boucher undoubtedly cannot, at least at this point of his career. But some of those are saves Boucher wouldn't have to make either, for he would have been more assertive - with the puck, with his voice.

He has seen more hockey. He sees trouble brewing before the kid does.

That doesn't make him better. Just different.

Which make Laviolette's upcoming month very, very interesting. The kid could get hot in a hurry, give him a month like what he had in November, play as if he's on a pond not a pressure cooker. Or he could wind up as a lot of hot hands do their first time around, allowing a bad goal to become a bad game, a bad game to become a bad series and a quick out.

Carey Price comes to mind. Bob seems more like Dominik Hasek in his early days, though, his potential clearly at odds with his penchant for battling the puck at times. Hasek settled into the star he became in his late 20s. Here's hoping Bob gets there sooner, maybe even in the next month.

But good luck reading the tea leaves. Laviolette has been understandably coy discussing Bob and Bouch, saying last night that he thought Bobrovsky handled the puck "pretty well," and that "we can play better defense in front of him." He has repeatedly said he has two goalies he is comfortable with, and last year's improbable run to the Cup finals suggest that is not simple posturing.

But there was always a No. 1 last postseason, and there will be one to start this one. The guess here is that the coach would start Boucher if the playoffs started tomorrow, that Bob has his share of the 19 games left to change that thinking.

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