Losing a couple of playoff games isn't all that mysterious. It happens. Even to teams on their way to a championship, it happens.
The mystery is how the Flyers lost their personality in this second-round series against New Jersey. There has been little sign of the swagger and energy that carried the Flyers past the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. In falling behind two games to one to the Devils, the Flyers have looked flat instead of on edge, lifeless instead of lively, overwhelmed instead of overwhelming.
"We can use emotion and passion to our advantage in this series against New Jersey," forward Danny Briere said. "I think that's the one part that's missing. We had it and we brought it against Pittsburgh. That's not an easy thing to do."
It is an even harder thing to do twice, still harder when the opponent doesn't inspire the same blood lust as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the Penguins. These are not the intimidating Devils of Scott Stevens. They are the Devils of Zach Parise, the kind of gritty, no-quit player Flyers fans love when he's wearing orange and black.
They are also a pretty good, mostly young team with a virtually unknown coach who has acquitted himself admirably in these playoffs. One answer to the question of where the Flyers' personality went is that the Devils have assumed it for themselves. Only better. They forecheck, they're aggressive, they are very tough in the toughest areas on the ice.
The Flyers were able to push the Penguins around. Now they are getting pushed. It has been a tough adjustment from one series to the other.
"It was probably tougher than everybody thought," Jaromir Jagr said. "We were kind of confident after the series against Pittsburgh. We realize it's not going to be easy. It's going to be very hard. It's going to be a war. They're very strong on the boards, they cycle the puck very well. They're stronger than I thought, for sure. I thought we were going to handle the boards a little better than we have so far. You never know. You've just got to keep fighting."
That's where it is, going into Game 4 Sunday night in Newark. The Flyers won a series, looked good doing it, and got all kinds of good experience for their very young nucleus. Considering how much this team changed, and how much it lost when captain Chris Pronger went down, that would be a pretty successful season. Losing this series would be disappointing, but on balance, the Flyers would still appear to be headed in the right direction.
You see it all the time. When teams meet or exceed expectations, sometimes they have a tough time maintaining their emotional pitch. The Flyers looked to be at the start of a deep playoff run after ousting the Pens. They haven't looked like that team for most of the 11 periods, including overtimes, in this series.
"Because we beat Pittsburgh, it doesn't mean we're going to go all the way to the final," Jagr said. "It's not like that at all. Don't forget all the games we played against New Jersey were pretty tight. Even in this playoffs, they were decided in the third period, two went to overtime. It's so close."
Can they get their edge back? There is time, but it's running low. Game 4 is the acid test.
"Everybody on an individual basis has to find another gear - has to find a way, first of all, to believe we can beat them," Briere said. "Has to find a way to go out there believing they're going to win every battle and going to fight harder for the puck."
There is a fine line between respecting an opponent's quality and simply submitting to it.
"I thought it was going to be tough and it is tough," Jagr said. "We should have played a lot better than we did the last three games, that's for sure. But you've got to give them a lot of credit. They didn't give you much. It's not like you don't try. But it can change like that."
Sometimes teams exceed expectations and just keep rolling. The St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants won the last World Series and Super Bowl that way. If the Flyers are going to be one of those teams, they have to flick that switch by Sunday night. They have to regain the identity they developed during the Pittsburgh series.
If they can manage that, they can look back on these losses as little more than the proverbial wake-up call.
"If that was a wake-up call," Briere said, "we're a little bit late to the party. It's the playoffs. There's no excuses for that."
Late to the party? Maybe. But at least the party isn't over. Not yet.