STANDING IN the middle of his team's locker room yesterday afternoon, Peter Laviolette looked like a man who had not gotten much sleep since the final horn sounded on the Flyers' season Friday night in Boston.

"I'm upset that we're not in here putting our gear on, breaking down [video], or getting ready to practice," Laviolette said. "At the end of the year, when you come up short of your goal, it's nothing but disappointment."

Laviolette met with the media for approximately 38 minutes yesterday, trying to help dissect and digest his team's performance on the ice. Inevitably, with a team with such high expectations flaming out brilliantly in the second round, the conversation was uncomfortable at times.

No segment of the conversation was more uncomfortable or awkward than when Laviolette was questioned about the mental makeup of his team - specifically, the leadership of Mike Richards.

The rumors had been flying around the Flyers' locker room for weeks that Richards and Laviolette were not on speaking terms, that the coach and his captain do not see eye-to-eye.

And Laviolette didn't exactly endorse his relationship with Richards yesterday.

"All relationships are built," Laviolette said. "You don't come in and put your hand on someone's hip and say, 'You and I are best friends.' Mike and I continue to work on our relationship. I respect him as a person and we continue to work on that."

Richards was not available to speak to the media yesterday to explain his side of the story. Richards was at the practice facility briefly before leaving for a doctor's appointment, as reports have indicated that he might require offseason surgery on his wrist.

Still, if there is one aspect of this Flyers team that needs questioning - aside from the punch-line, decade-old question marks in net - it is their mental and chemical composition. Something has clearly been amiss, and it was not just this season.

How does a team with a nine-point lead in the Eastern Conference on Feb. 26 nearly end up in fourth place by April 10?

"We were getting away with things in Game 63 of the season that would have never flown in Game 3 of the season," one Flyer said yesterday, preferring to speak anonymously. "The whole time, we were all kind of waiting for someone to point the finger and snap out of our funk. It never came. Not from anyone in the locker room, not from the coach, not from management.

"And now we have to live with that as men. I think we kind of realized on Friday night what we just did. We're not going to always be able to get out of whatever we get ourselves in."

So, the question bears asking: Whose shoulders does that responsibility, the responsibility to point the finger and put an end to the mess, fall upon?

"That starts and stops with me," said Laviolette, taking the heat. "If you're looking for who holds the keys to that car, it's me."

Laviolette very clearly bit his tongue through the inconsistent stretches in late February and March, which ultimately led to their demise in early May. There is an old saying: "Do things your way. If it's stupid and works, it must not be that stupid."

Laviolette watched his team back itself into a corner time and time again and come out fighting. The Flyers did it on the last day of the regular season in 2010, against Boston last May, and did the same thing at the end of this season to salvage the second seed in the East before downing Buffalo by winning two straight. Laviolette wanted to let them do it their way.

Part of the blame, however, should be shouldered by Richards.

Richards, 26, is not a yeller or a screamer, and by all accounts he is not a vocal leader. He said in a March interview with the Daily News that he has never "believed in embarrassing people publicly," or in front of teammates. He is the type of captain who would much rather pull a player aside quietly.

"Mike is a good, quiet leader," Laviolette said. "Since I've been here, he's done a good job. I can't speak to how he handles you guys [in the media], but I can tell you, the players respect Mike."

Laviolette was quick to defend Richards in what he said was a "witch hunt" by the media. He said that teams don't get to the Stanley Cup finals "by chance" and that you have to "have good leadership."

That much is true.

Media savvy does not make a good leader. And vice versa. Richards has gotten an unfair rap as a poor leader because of that. But heavy is the burden of the man who cannot even be mentioned in a story or on television without the qualifier of "captain'' placed before his name.

There is no witch hunt here.

Have the Flyers put Richards in the best position possible to be successful - not only as a person, but also as a player? Would Richards be better served to just be one of the guys? Richards would not need a letter on his jersey to continue to lead the way he already does.

They are uncomfortable questions. But no question is unfair at this point. Especially not when it is the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

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