The Flyers made things so much harder on themselves by making all of this look so darn easy.

Going into this first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, expectations for the Flyers were manageable. They were a young team beset by devastating injuries, a team that was consistent only in its perplexing inconsistency. The Penguins were talented and experienced and surging with the return of captain Sidney Crosby.

That's why most national experts picked the Penguins to win this series and why even the most partisan Flyers fans figured it would take a bloody seven-game torture test for the Orange and Black to advance. If the Flyers went down, well, that could be written off as a learning experience for a pack of rookies playing without captain and expert playoff navigator Chris Pronger.

Given that backdrop, a 3-2 series lead going into Game 6 at the Wells Fargo Center would have been a most welcome scenario for the Flyers and their fans. Ah, but it is not that simple. How a team gets to a crossroads like this can go a long way toward determining which fork it winds up going down.

By storming back to a comeback win in Game 1 in Pittsburgh, then cruising to two more wins, the Flyers turned expectations upside down. They made it all look so easy. Their youth meant energy instead of inexperience. Surely they would dispatch the suddenly old-looking Penguins and make a serious run at the Stanley Cup.

Sean Couturier, 19, was not only neutralizing Evgeni Malkin, he scored a hat trick in his second playoff game ever.

Brayden Schenn, 20, led the Game 1 comeback with a couple of big assists and a game-tying goal of his own.

Jakub Voracek, 22, scored the overtime winner in Game 1. Matt Read, the 25-year-old rookie, scored two goals in the Flyers' 8-4 Game 3 victory. Wayne Simmonds, 23, added another.

But Game 3 will be remembered for more than the Flyers' offensive dominance of the hapless Penguins. With the game and series slipping away, the Penguins turned nasty. It may be a coincidence, but the targets of the most heinous hits were the youngest Flyers. Couturier was knocked woozy by James Neal, who was suspended one game for that and his head shot on Claude Giroux. Arron Asham drew a four-game ban for cross-checking Schenn and pounding his head into the ice after he was down.

The Flyers have been outscored, 13-5, since: 10-3 in Game 4 and 3-2 in Game 5. Malkin scored two goals and had an assist in Game 4. Couturier and Schenn have been awfully quiet since then. That's a lot of coincidences.

But that's OK. Experience is the only way young players can get a feel for the intensity level of the playoffs, and the young Flyers got three games' worth of absurdly unrealistic experience. It was too easy, so they thought it would be easy. Now they have absorbed, along with some physical abuse, two games' worth of relevant experience. What matters is how they respond.

Malkin was penalized twice in Game 5, for hits on, you guessed it, Schenn and Couturier. Either these Flyers are about to blow a three-game lead and gain invaluable experience for the future, or they're about to finish off the Penguins and go into the second round as a better and better-prepared team.

It isn't easy. It isn't supposed to be. They all know that now.

"For us to win, we've got to bear down on our chances," Scott Hartnell said. "We've got to block shots. You look at the Rangers. They're blocking 15, 20, 30 shots a game. I'm sure they're hurting after the game. It seems they're sliding right past us. [Tyler] Kennedy's goal - those things have to be blocked."

"It's playoffs," Giroux said. "You need to block a shot. You need to take a hit. You need to do the little things that maybe you don't want to do. When you do block a shot or get a hit - after the game, if you know you've done everything you can to win, it's the best feeling of satisfaction."

That pretty much defines playoff hockey. If you're going to be bruised and sore and exhausted, and you should be, that price is worth paying when you win. Paying it over and over, for two months, is the price for winning the Stanley Cup.

The Flyers' chances in this series depend on their learning this lesson in time. Their performance in Game 5 suggested they get it. Based on the scores, you might think the Penguins had momentum in this series. But if you watched the action, you know the Flyers controlled the most recent period.

They almost made it look easy, but not that easy.

Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com,
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