BOSTON - Flyers coach Peter Laviolette played the legacy card yesterday. It was probably the best he could do, given the truly lousy hand he currently holds. He talked about being down by 0-3 in another playoff series to the Bruins, and about just worrying about winning one game, and about how, after a dismal Game 3, his team is "capable of giving more than we gave."

Then he said this:

"It's going to say a lot about us, how we respond to this and how we are perceived from here."

It is a nice try, but Laviolette is wrong. The perception is already set. Unless the Flyers were to find a way to commit another miracle in the next week, as they did last season against the Bruins, it doesn't really matter whether they end up winning zero, one, two or three games in this series.

Because no one doubts the Flyers' courage.

And everyone doubts their collective maturity.

They have proved, again and again, that they possess gumption by the garage-full. In the last two seasons, their record in playoff elimination games is 6-1 - and the one loss, in the Stanley Cup finals, came on a ridiculous goal in overtime.

They take pride in their backbone, and deservedly so. They gained a national reputation for guts after their comeback from oblivion last spring against the Bruins, and they have added to it this year in the first round of the playoffs against Buffalo.

It is their greatest strength.

It also is their greatest weakness.

They are the smart kid who is forever starting the term paper on the night before it is due, and whose only real studying for tests is done on the school bus in the morning. They get by on their ability and on adrenaline - that is, until they don't, until they push it too far.

That is who the Flyers are. That is their reputation - begun last season, reinforced with the way they limped to the finish line this March, cemented now with this spring. And the signs during Game 3 were a collective realization that they had pushed it too far this time. They gave up two goals in the first 63 seconds, and then another one later when they got caught up ice trying to create something, and then, as Laviolette said, "Once it got to be 3-0, the fight seemed to leave us."

This, too, must be said: The Bruins are playing very well. They have size, they have speed and, when they're attentive to it, they play a confounding, counterattacking system that really does a good job in the middle of the ice. It is no disgrace to lose a series to this caliber of team; the Flyers had 106 points in the regular season and the Bruins had 103, after all.

The problem is the way the Flyers have played. It really was not their fault that it took seven games to beat the Buffalo Sabres in the first round - that was all about their comical goaltending, and it was exhausting. But in winning two more elimination games to close out that series, and in getting defenseman Chris Pronger back into the lineup, they appeared to find that extra gear. It was what would presumably carry them into the Boston series.

Instead, they played a terrible game in their end in Game 1 and got smoked, and they had a dreadful start in Game 3 and got smoked again. In between, they could have and should have won Game 2 - and would have won but for Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas. But that will happen in playoff hockey.

Game 1, especially, is the one that cannot happen. But it did. Collectively, as a team, they allowed themselves a breather after the Buffalo series - apparently confident in the fact that they have come from behind so many times before. Again, it is a lack of maturity - and, in this case, it was combined with Pronger having a minus-3 night, leaving the ice with 2 minutes to go, and never being seen again with a still-undisclosed injury.

This time, it felled them. And now they are left to hope for another Boston implosion, and to say things like this, from center Claude Giroux: "Just one win would give us confidence and make them think about last year."

That is all fine. You have to say something when they turn on the cameras, after all. But it misses the bigger point.

However tonight ends, this group should neither rue nor celebrate the result of Game 4. It is Game 1 that they need to think hardest about.

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