NEWARK, N.J. - For people who play hockey at this time of year, the desperate search is for victory in any of its many shapes and forms: pretty, ugly, does not matter. For people who watch hockey and write about hockey at this time of year, the quest is for a narrative to explain it all, to validate every personal preconception and cover every eventuality.
So far, through three games of Flyers and Devils, that story cannot yet be written. The plot has not yet been fleshed out, and preconception has been turned on its head. Each team has taken turns making the other side look slow and inept, and there still is no obvious explanation for why the momentum has switched and then switched back and then switched again.
But after the Devils' Alexei Ponikarovsky scored at 17:21 of overtime to give New Jersey a 4-3 victory Thursday night and a two-games-to-one lead in the series, there is only this:
For the Flyers, a sense of creeping danger.
You could read it on the face and in the words of Danny Briere after the game, as he excoriated a Flyers power play that was 1-for-5 on the night, including two empty advantages in overtime. You could hear it, too, and very plainly, when the suddenly quiet Claude Giroux said, "I think we need to wake it up a little bit."
And then there was goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. The question for him was whether, given all of the back-and-forth momentum shifts, he thought the series had been fairly even to this point.
Bryz did not bristle, but he did not agree, either.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "They have more puck possession. They control the puck better. They are more physical than we are. We've got to change these aspects to probably win the games. I don't know."
No one does. The game was 2-2 after the second period. When Zach Parise scored at 7:29 of the third to give the New Jersey the lead, it seemed as if the Devils were on the verge of grabbing control of the series. When Briere did what Briere does - that is, score a goal in the spring, this time by chopping at a bouncing rebound and making enough contact to get the puck past Marty Brodeur at 11:04 - it was tied again at 3-3. Ebb was flow and flow was ebb, and the only certainty was that someone ultimately would be knocked over by a wave they did not see coming.
Which happened in overtime, when the Flyers got caught on a bad line change and paid the price.
In about 10 periods of hockey, the Flyers have dominated about 3 1/2 of them and the Devils have dominated about 4 1/2 of them. There has not been a lot to choose from the two sides, when you tote it up that way. The Flyers have yet to match the dominance the Devils showed in Game 2 on Tuesday night, but when they have been good, they have been very good.
The second period Thursday night was crucial for the Flyers. After being run out of the Wells Fargo Center in the last two periods of Game 2, they again were dominated in the first period of Game 3. The 2-day break solved none of their problems. They looked slow, and very tentative trying to bring the puck out of their zone against the Devils' forecheck.
Two periods on 1 day is still only 1 bad day. But the carry-over into Game 3 threatened to become a baffling trend, one for which there was no obvious answer. The Flyers had to re-establish something, and quickly, or risk being run out of a series that seemed theirs for the taking after they dominated Game 1.
It is why the second period was so important - because the Flyers did re-establish themselves, both in a physical way and a speed way. They did find their legs again. The third period still somewhat belonged to the Devils, but it was very competitive. There was some equilibrium. And then, into overtime it went.
"I thought the second period was a real good period for us," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "I thought the third period, in the first half of it, they came out again, and they jumped us a little bit, like they did in the first. And I thought we fought back by the end of the third and started getting some looks and some zone time.
"It seems to go one way or the other. We're in our zone or we're in their zone. The overtime . . . We had a couple of power-play opportunities, and we didn't cash in."
It was a long game. It still looks as if it will be a long series. Other than that, it is hard to know what to say. For the first time this spring, the Flyers trail in a series.
Can they bounce back?
"I hope so," Bryzgalov said, quietly.
Narrative to follow.