NEWARK, N.J. - It's hard to say which is worse, that Claude Giroux could be suspended for an elimination game or that the way the Flyers are playing, it barely seems to matter.
You kept waiting for Giroux to make his mark on this second-round series, to take out his frustration on the New Jersey Devils. But an indefensible cheap shot from behind was not exactly what anyone had in mind.
Giroux's sneak attack on Dainius Zubrus pretty much summed up where the Flyers are in this series. They can't skate with the Devils, can't outsmart the Devils, can't outhustle the Devils. They are frustrated and incapable of turning this thing around.
"Everybody's frustrated," defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. "Now is not the time to get frustrated. It's time to pay attention to details and look at the tape and what we can do better. We're still alive. It's not over, but we have to be much better on Tuesday."
The Flyers said that after Game 2, then were outplayed for most of Game 3. They said it after Game 3, had two days off to strategize and regroup, and got skated out of the Prudential Center in Game 4.
In some ways, Giroux is a barometer for these Flyers. If he's on his game - skating, forechecking, creating offensive chances - the rest of the team is probably on its game, too. So it was encouraging in the first period when Giroux created two goals in less than two minutes.
The first came on a power play. Giroux fired the puck through the slot, and Scott Hartnell redirected it past birthday boy Martin Brodeur. Just 1 minute, 50 seconds later, Giroux flipped his own rebound over Brodeur to complete a shorthanded rush up the ice. It was 2-0 Flyers, even though the Devils had controlled play for most of the game to that point.
"It looks like they're on us all the time," Timonen said. "There's no time. We've got to figure out how to break that up."
Within five minutes, the lead was gone. The Flyers labored just to get the puck out of their own zone, then they struggled just as impotently to get it into the New Jersey zone. They were outshot by 16-7 in the first period and by 16-5 in the second. They looked clueless at times, careless at too many others. The Devils seemed to be on the power play during most of the five-on-five action.
And so the Flyers find themselves on the brink of elimination - down three games to game - on merit. After the giddy highs of their first-round thrashing of the hated Penguins, they are looking like an easy second-round out for a Devils team that makes up for a lack of star power with relentless, exhausting team play.
The Flyers are the deeper team, coming off the more impressive first-round showing and a whole week of rest. There is no excuse for their getting manhandled like this.
Worse, the last three games have looked pretty much the same. You keep waiting for coach Peter Laviolette to find some answers. He has been shuffling lines to the point where there basically aren't any lines. He did not resort to his old standby, switching goaltenders, for two reasons. The Flyers have a huge commitment to Ilya Bryzgalov, and the goalie was the least of the Flyers' problems in their three losses.
Going into the series, I wrote that coaching would be one big edge for the Flyers. Laviolette has won a Stanley Cup and gotten an overachieving team two wins from another. Devils coach Pete DeBoer had a fine first season here, but he was untested in the postseason.
He was tested by Florida in the first round and passed. He has not really been tested by Laviolette and the Flyers, an astounding statement.
Laviolette used his timeout before five minutes had elapsed in the first period of Game 4. There was no notable difference in the team's play afterward. The Devils continued to dominate play. It was another five minutes before the Flyers' two-goal barrage.
It seemed inevitable when an unmarked Zubrus fired a shot past Bryzgalov for the winning goal. The former Flyer was one of the forwards DeBoer has been tasking with controlling Giroux. A few minutes later, after arguing that Brodeur illegally had handled the puck outside his area, Giroux made a beeline for Zubrus and took a sneaky shot at his head.
"Claude probably thinks that Martin Brodeur played the puck outside the line," Laviolette said, "and showed frustration because of it."
Trying to concuss another player is hardly the proper reaction to a quibble about Brodeur's puckhandlng. The hit should be reviewed by the NHL. Zubrus was not injured, which may spare Giroux a suspension for Game 5.
Would it matter? The Flyers don't seem capable of beating this team with Giroux or without him.