TO WANDER around the Flyers' dressing room during their playoff interregnum - no start date for the next round, no opponent yet identified, no questions worth asking after the first day - is to witness the impossible:

Defensemen.

Lots of them.

Seemingly growing healthier.

Depth getting deeper.

The venerable-and-essential Kimmo Timonen, who has been patched together physically for months now, talks about what could end up being a weeklong layoff and smiles easily and says, "To be honest, I need it." But to walk among the rest of the defensemen at their locker stalls is to see legitimate hope that Andrej Meszaros and Nicklas Grossmann could be back at some point from their injuries, and legitimate production from Erik Gustafsson as a fill-in at the end of the Pittsburgh series.

It is not likely to dominate the conversation when the Flyers' opponent is determined after two Game 7s on Thursday night, and the figuring and the speculating really begins, but the fact that the Flyers could soon have as many as eight pretty trustworthy defensemen at their disposal cannot be understated.

"The guys who have come in have showed that the organization has good depth and I think that's what it's going to take in the playoffs," Grossmann said. "We need guys to fill in, whether there are suspensions or injuries. It's good to have guys that can step in . . .

"Injuries happen," he said. "You need guys who are prepared and can go in there and play."

We all talk about goaltending as the great springtime scourge in Philadelphia, but defensive injuries might have short-circuited more good playoff runs than anything. The all-timer was probably in 2004: five games against New Jersey, six merciless games against Toronto, and then seven games against Tampa Bay. It was Ken Hitchcock's best chance to win a Stanley Cup as the Flyers' coach, and it did not happen for the simple reason that the team had no defensemen left by the end.

They fell like drunken dominoes, one after the other during the season and then the playoffs: Dennis Seidenberg and Jim Vandermeer, Marcus Ragnarsson and Kim Johnsson and, especially, Eric Desjardins. Some fell and stayed down. Some fell and healed and got up and fell again. It was so bad as the trade deadline neared that Flyers general manager Bob Clarke made separate deals after Christmas to acquire Vladimir Malakhov, Danny Markov and Mattias Timander; Malakhov finished the playoffs with a concussion. It was so bad in the heat of the postseason that forward Sami Kapanen took a turn on defense in several games.

But there were other years, too. Just a quick look back - and there are probably more - showed 1996, when Kevin Haller broke a thumb and Petr Svoboda injured his groin and the Flyers went out in the second round; 2008, when Braydon Coburn missed the final games of the Flyers' conference final loss to Pittsburgh with his left eye swollen shut while Timonen was out for even longer with a blood clot in his left ankle; 2011, when - despite all the goaltending histrionics - the Flyers were 2-1 in the games that Chris Pronger played and 2-6 in the games he didn't.

Pronger. His absence this spring was supposed to be the end of everything, the end before it began. Such had been his ability to dominate portions of games and particular opponents with a unique combination of skills - great body positioning, long reach, occasional thump, incredible ability to read a situation.

Without him, though, the Flyers have pulled this thing together - mostly because general manager Paul Holmgren acquired Grossman and Pavel Kubina during the season. Then, through the injuries, they have held it together for a couple of reasons: Timonen's ability to fight through whatever he is fighting through, along with the steady reliability of Matt Carle and especially Coburn, who led the defensemen in time on ice in the first round.

But then, when Gustafsson could play that kind of Game 6 against the Penguins - real minutes against real players - it just added another piece. Now Grossmann (concussion) and Meszaros (back surgery) are back skating at practice. They still aren't taking any contact, and neither is making any promises about the start of the next round, whenever that is, but the trend is clear.

"It was nice to be out there with the guys, that's for sure," Meszaros said. "Feel the flow, have a few laughs with the guys."

And, well, we'll see. But after having lived through so many seasons of despair, just know this: As long as it takes more than one hand to count the Flyers' credible defensemen, this has a chance to be interesting.

Contact Rich Hofmann at
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