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Phil Sheridan: A hard fall for the Flyers

The Flyers left themselves no room for error, so naturally a whopper of an error led to their final downfall.

The Flyers left themselves no room for error, so naturally a whopper of an error led to their final downfall.

Ilya Bryzgalov's fateful attempt to clear a puck will be the lasting image of this second-round elimination at the hands of the New Jersey Devils - just as Michael Leighton, frozen to the post after the Stanley Cup was lost, is the picture from 2010 that haunts Flyers fans.

When Bryzgalov played well in this series, the Flyers played terribly in front of him. When the Flyers finally showed up with a full tank of rocket fuel, Bryz fizzled. It was only one of the mysteries of this puzzling series.

Without their best player, the suspended Claude Giroux, the Flyers played their best game of the series. And yet, they will always have to wonder if Giroux's presence would have been enough to tip the scales in their favor. They were virtually even in Game 5.

Both teams controlled play for stretches. Both launched breathless rushes that led to some excellent scoring chances. Both goalies made some good saves. Both goalies made one mind-boggling mistake.

When Bryzgalov muffed an attempted clear, the puck went right to New Jersey's David Clarkson. He managed to bat it right past the stunned Bryzgalov.

When Martin Brodeur got caught behind his own net, then dove to swat the puck away, it went right to Danny Briere. He managed to hit the post instead of the six feet of empty goalmouth.

"Marty passed the puck from behind the net," Bryzgalov said. "It was pretty much the same situation. We hit the post or it would have been a different game."

Instead it was the same result for the fourth game in a row. The Devils won and the Flyers are done.

"When a team beats you four times, they're the better team," Kimmo Timonen said.

When Ilya Kovalchuk fired a slapshot over Bryzgalov's shoulder for a 3-1 third-period lead, it was official. Bryzgalov was not just the second-best goalie in this series, he was also the second-best Ilya.

"We saw guys play desperate hockey," said Giroux, who watched the game from the press box. "Guys played with heart. It's how we should have played the whole series."

They didn't, though, and it cast a cloud of doubt over this otherwise promising season. After a rousing first-round dismissal of the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, the Flyers looked tentative and timid and confused against the Devils.

For the veterans, it was just another year without a Stanley Cup. It won't sting as much as the 2010 run to the Finals, but it will sting. The Rangers and Capitals are locked in a very tough series and the survivor could be vulnerable. Now the Devils will get that chance. Get to the Finals against Phoenix or Los Angeles and who knows? It's wide open.

"After the Pittsburgh series, I thought this was really our chance," Timonen said. "The teams that are left, I thought are beatable. This was the best opportunity. Personally, I'm running out of time."

Briere and Timonen are running low on chances. Jaromir Jagr, who looked every bit of his 40 years in this series, has the consolation of his two rings from the last century.

For the young players, it was experience - not necessarily useful experience. They had it too easy in the first round and were stuck in a quagmire throughout the second.

"They're going to have a really good team for years to come," Timonen said, picturing a future that doesn't include himself.

As for Bryzgalov, his first year was decidedly mixed. He never seemed comfortable in a city where expectations and enthusiasm are high. When he slumped in the regular season, his eccentric public comments did not fly so well. When he got hot, he raised hopes he could be the long- sought shutdown goalie this team has lacked for years of postseason disappointment.

He was not that. He was very good for stretches, but he was never that brick wall.

That said, maybe he and the team can make some adjustments. Bryzgalov thrived in the Phoenix system that now has Mike Smith preparing for the Western Conference finals. Maybe that says something about the system as well as the goalies. Bryzgalov improved after the Flyers added Nick Grossmann. If the defense can get tighter and Bryzgalov can adjust his game to the Flyers' more open style, this marriage could still work.

Given the length of his contract, the Flyers may have no choice.

Coach Peter Laviolette burst onto the scene with that run to the Finals in his first season. There have been two second-round exits since, with two vastly different rosters. He never did find a way to awaken his sleepwalking team in this series, but he's not going anywhere.

Except home, with the rest of them.