His team has put Peter Laviolette in an absurd position.

A coach's role is to identify problems with his team and find solutions. So Laviolette should have his hands full as the Flyers trip over their skate laces in the final weeks of the regular season.

But what does the coach do when everyone knows exactly what the problem is, exactly what the solutions are, and the team just keeps skating in the same deep ruts? How does Laviolette X-and-O away human nature?

"We got into some bad habits when we were playing and we didn't have much to play for," forward Danny Briere said after an up-tempo practice Wednesday. "It doesn't take long. It creeps up into your game. You don't realize it, and it's not an easy thing to reverse."

The Flyers have blown a month's worth of opportunities to lock up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and give themselves the easiest possible path back to the Stanley Cup Finals. After an abysmal loss in Ottawa on Tuesday night, they are clinging to second place in the East and are in danger of blowing the Atlantic Division title.

"We've been getting outhustled, outworked, out-battled, out-power played, out-penalty killed," winger Scott Hartnell said.

It seemed impossible two weeks ago, but the Flyers could easily be the fourth seed in the East, which would mean a first-round matchup with a dangerous Tampa Bay team.

There are some tangible factors, of course. The absence of defenseman/agent provocateur Chris Pronger plays a part in the team's loss of focus. An injury to Jody Shelley, the team's most feared fighter, has left the Flyers without that element in their lineup.

But mostly, there's a listlessness born of the team's long, heart-wrenching near-miss in the Cup Finals last year. The regular season feels like a long sit in the waiting room before the playoffs open.

"There were two months off before you're back on the ice, training," Hartnell said. "We've been waiting for eight months to get back into the playoffs. Seven months of those eight we've been great, and this last month we've been not great. . . . It's been a long season to get back to the playoffs, where everything means everything."

"Sometimes," captain Mike Richards said, "when you're excited for something up the road, you forget about what's happening in the present."

As the Flyers stumble toward the postseason starting gate, their biggest rivals are getting stronger. Washington is 7-2-1 in its last 10 games and now holds the top seed in the East. Pittsburgh is 7-3 and is one point behind the Flyers in the division. The Flyers are 3-4-3.

Not exactly the kind of momentum that inspires confidence.

Of course, those regular-season losses mean nothing once the puck drops for the first round of the playoffs. It is possible for a team to start a run at that very moment. The Flyers know this for a compelling reason.

"We did it last year," Briere said. "Now we're in a position where we need to do that again. There's no doubt we believe we can do it. We still have a couple games here to get ready for the playoffs, and I'm hoping we can get on the same kind of run."

The Flyers needed a shootout win over the Rangers on the last day of the season just to qualify for the playoffs last year. They played at an entirely different level once the playoffs began. But they also got some breaks, avoiding the Capitals and Penguins on their way to the Finals.

So it's fine to draw on last year's experience but probably foolish to count on things breaking just right again.

It would have been far better to keep the accelerator down and go into the playoffs at the top of their game. That's not going to happen. The Flyers have just two games - at Buffalo on Friday, home against the Islanders on Saturday - to get out of the rut they've been in. But it's too late to build momentum. They are going to have to flick the postseason switch again and hope the lights come on.

"I think the playoffs bring that out," Laviolette said. "You're either winning in the first round or you're going home. I think that comes with the playoffs. That's why we play the regular season. Not happy with what we've done in the last month, the inconsistency of it. We need to be more accountable to our work ethic, as individuals and as a group. And I think we will."

A couple of wins this weekend can't hurt, but the pass/fail exam starts next week.

If they're still playing in late May, then all this listless play will be a hazy memory.

If not, there will be hard questions about how the coach and the captain let the team slide so far.

That's some thin ice.

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