OK, EIGHT GAMES into this marathon of attrition, and what do we know about this playoff edition of the Flyers? I mean, really know for sure. The goalie has played good enough most of the time, spectacular some of the time and not-so-hot at other times. The kids have amazed at times and disappeared at times, and the leadership has been inspired some of the time and disappointing at others, like Tuesday night.
A game like that wasn't supposed to ever happen again, remember? That was the embarrassed message that Flyers de facto captain Claude Giroux sent out after that 10-3 Game 4 loss against Pittsburgh, then backed it up with a solid effort in Game 5 and a spectacular one in Game 6.
And what did we learn then? That the kids amaze only when the playoff veterans set the tone. That leadership is everything this time of the year. That's how Sean Couturier scored his hat trick and how Eric Wellwood and Erik Gustafsson finally got noticed, and how Jakub Voracek, in his first playoffs, quickly became a player who New Jersey's Patrik Elias contends is the Flyers' second-best offensive player.
When the Flyers advanced to the sixth game of the Stanley Cup finals two seasons ago, Giroux and Hartnell were the kids little was expected of, the guys who took their cues from Chris Pronger and Mike Richards and Kimmo Timonen. But now this is their team, or at least they are among their leaders, and thus the two home eggs laid by this team this postseason started and end right at the tip of their skates. And they know it.
"If your best players are moving their feet and are physical, I think it triggers everyone to do the right thing," Hartnell said after practice Wednesday. "But when you're sitting back on your heels, not hitting, not aggressive, the other lines kind of react to it. With the young team that we have, it's kind of on us old guys to play the right way.
"I didn't have my best game. I know it."
Moments later, Hartnell walked away with a little limp, the byproduct of a blocked shot. A reason perhaps. The Flyers were outshot, outhustled, lost at least 80 percent of all contested pucks along the boards Tuesday. Normally a human magnet with the puck, Giroux had two shots and lost the puck so many times, it appeared at times that something was wrong with his hands. But he stood in front of a large media crowd Wednesday with no apparent swelling there, no bandage, no ice anywhere else either. And no real explanation for how he played, other than, "We're not going to win 16 games in a row."
"We did a lot of bad things the last game," Giroux said. "We got outworked. That can't be allowed. Especially in our own building."
He has said this before, of course, and followed it with one of the most impressive singular performances in the Wells Fargo Center. Giroux leveled Sidney Crosby seconds after Game 6 began and scored within the first minute, and his motor just never stopped. Danny Briere made a similar statement in Game 1 of this series, and it seemed to awaken the game of James van Riemsdyk, and got the feet behind them moving well, too.
After the Penguins were upset by the Flyers in the first round, a few postmortems in the press there focused on leadership. Like the Phillies of 2008, the Penguins looked like a team that was going to win several championships after that 2009 run, but cap concerns forced them to lose some important veterans, guys such as Sergei Gonchar and Max Talbot. The feeling was that Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Brooks Orpik would provide that, but leadership is a tricky thing - especially when your 24-year-old superstar is missing because of repeated concussions.
Still, Sid gave it a whirl by tactically losing his mind in that Game 3. Coincidence or not, the Pens won the next two games, including that big egg the Flyers laid here, when Pittsburgh was missing James Neal.
The Devils played Tuesday without Ilya Kovalchuk, whose back may be giving out after playing a zillion minutes this season. But Zach Parise was still there, and for the second game in a row, he was everywhere. You might recall that Olympic tournament in Vancouver a few years back, when he was a machine for the United States in that knockout tournament, tying up that gold-medal game before Sid won it in OT, as relentlessly good as Martin Brodeur was in his younger days.
Brodeur is using a whole lot of muscle memory these days, but he won't be the reason the Devils lose this series. Nor will Parise. It seems so long, long ago, but it was Elias who broke your hearts that year Scott Stevens broke Eric Lindros forever. Moments after the Flyers' John LeClair was stopped by Brodeur on one end, Elias finished off a counter by pushing the winning goal past Brian Boucher in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals.
That is how old those names are. They go back that far, back to a time when you couldn't get anywhere near the front of Brodeur's net on account of Stevens and Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko. This is supposed to be one good reason why the Flyers and their mix of kids and players in their prime are supposed to win, because the Devils are old.
It's also a very good reason why they could lose, with just another game or two like the one mailed in Tuesday night.
"It's playoffs," Giroux said. "And it's about teams who can put games like that behind them and move forward from there and kind of motivate themselves to be better in the next game. I think we're a team like that. There's a lot of character in this room. A lot of guys who like to win and a lot of guys who hate to lose. I think it's going to be a fun game."