NEWARK, N.J. - The Next Step.
You hear it all the time in sports. Often, it is applied to teams that have provided a glimpse of what they might become, uneven teams with promising talent and/or unfulfilled promise. It is figurative speech, or meant to be, but in this playoff series between the Flyers and New Jersey Devils, it is a literal description as well.
The Flyers are just not taking that next step. Specifically, they are not taking the extra step that separates a strong clear from a wobbly puck picked off in their own zone. They are not taking the extra step that would get them to the puck behind their own net before their opponents, or in front of New Jersey's net, too.
"I don't know if it's panic or it's too much pressure," said Danny Briere, who was on the ice for two goals in the Devils' 4-2 victory Sunday night. "I don't know what is going on."
The scores in this series suggest a closely contested series. The naked-eye truth is that Ilya Bryzgalov, of all people, has made it look that way. For the second game in this series, he threatened to steal a game for them with his play, stopping 29 of the 32 shots he faced over the first two periods, twice by stopping the puck inches from his goal while sprawled across his crease.
I said before this round that the Flyers would lose this series if he didn't show up. Truth is, he's one of the only ones who have. Bryz faced 42 shots. The Flyers had 22 against New Jersey, 12 over the first two periods.
"I don't know if it's the legs or how we're able to move the puck," Briere said. "It seems everything is difficult. All year we've been a team that makes crisp passes to get out of the zone. We make smart plays, heads-up plays. And right now we're forcing things. We're getting rid of it. One guy will be in trouble and instead of making a good, hard play he'll just give his struggle away to the next guy. It's all over the ice. And we're just not used to doing that."
Briere's right. They are passing off their problems, or at least trying to. They Flyers didn't just deserve to lose this game. They didn't deserve to even be in it. Every time the puck went in their end you felt for them. Minute by uglier minute, someone in orange and black was getting blasted, someone was tentatively poking the puck toward mid-ice as his eyes probed for the next oncoming red shirt.
This wasn't about any strategy. It was just about survival.
"We're letting Bryz play by himself," said Claude Giroux. "If it wasn't for him, we'd have gotten killed tonight."
At one point Sunday night, halfway through the game, before Brayden Schenn broke up a shotless second period, the Flyers had been charged with 13 turnovers compared to New Jersey's three. That's not all about one team's forecheck. It has to have something to do with the other team's gut check.
Even in their best of times last night, when Giroux shook off his own wobbly start to jump-start his team to a 2-0 lead, Flyers forwards could be seen repeatedly waiting for the puck as it was whipped around the boards, losing a chance to make a play because of it. Or they were swiping at the puck instead of skating to it. On New Jersey's second goal in the first period, for example, James van Riemsdyk - whose start in this series was so promising - whiffed on a two-handed swipe along the boards, watched as the puck was whipped around by Marek Zidlicky, then failed to cover the New Jersey defenseman as he slid into the slot, received a cross-ice pass and popped it past Bryzgalov.
That erased completely the lead Giroux had provided just minutes before, and once again strongly suggested that the Flyers had abandoned the defensive intensity they seemed to have found at the end of the Pittsburgh series. The Devils' winning goal for example, came after Braydon Coburn busted his butt to break up a two-on-one and even win the puck in the corner. Kimmo Timonen, who also took a late third-period penalty, allowed Adam Henrique to slide in front of him behind the Flyers net, pick off Coburn's pass and feed Dainius Zubrus in front of the net.
The Blues learned and the Rangers are learning that formulas that define success in the regular season can sabotage a postseason run. In their cases, tight defense that limits both teams' opportunities translates into less scoring chances - sometimes a lethal dose against scoring teams that in the playoffs have become more defensively responsible.
The Flyers' arsenic, of course, is the opposite. With a defense made up of small mobile guys and a few big, slow ones, they need less of a jailbreak mentality in the postseason, not the same strategy they used in trading goals during the regular season, and trading goals in gaining their advantage over Pittsburgh. They need to skate as hard inside of their own zone as they do once they emerge from it. The sad thing, should their season end before this week is out, is that they have proved capable of this for periods in the postseason and at least once, in Game 6 against Pittsburgh, for an entire game.
They will need three of those games now to take that next step.
And there is little in their history this season - or postseason - to suggest they have the legs to do it.