TAMPA, Fla. - Max Talbot was the Flyers' best player on Monday night against the Lightning. And the previous game. And two games before that.
As well as he's playing, Talbot is not going to carry the Flyers to the Stanley Cup playoffs - and that's not a knock on him. The only route to the playoffs - if they still are a realistic possibility - is through production from their top line. And Scott Hartnell and Claude Giroux have been on a milk carton for serious stretches of eight straight games.
"It seems like our third- and fourth-line guys are playing our best hockey right now," Hartnell said. "We've got to start scoring. We need to be difference-makers every night. I think we've been having some OK games. We need to start having some great games.
"It's on us to be better and get focused and get ready to work. You need your top line scoring."
Not even Jake Voracek, perhaps the Flyers' most consistent player this season other than Wayne Simmonds, could escape that blame on Monday night. Still, Voracek deserves a bit of a pass. He's on pace to set a new career high in points (50) and goals (21) in only a 48-game season, even though he has just one goal and one assist in his last five games.
That line overall has been in a significant slump since the initial burst Hartnell provided when he returned from a fractured toe on Feb. 23. Hartnell had three points in his first three games back; Voracek had five and Giroux had six.
Since, Giroux has two goals and two assists in his last eight games. Hartnell has one goal and one assist in his last eight games - and the one goal came in garbage time, trailing New Jersey, 5-1, in the third period last Wednesday.
"Offensively, I don't think we were firing on all cylinders [against New Jersey]," Peter Laviolette said before Monday's game. "We're not doing a good enough job of winning those puck battles in the offensive zone and moving the puck and moving for each other."
Laviolette said lines change based on "day-to-day things" and which players are available to him, but said he wasn't considering switching things up heading into Tampa.
Perhaps it's time for a major shakeup in lines - and we're not talking about Laviolette's impromptu benching of Hartnell in a must-win game. Zac Rinaldo said he tried to play to the "best of my abilities," but he isn't going to help Giroux score or, ultimately, the Flyers win.
As a whole, the Flyers have scored only eight goals in eight games in March at even strength; the other eight goals this month came on either the power play (7) or shorthanded (1).
Hartnell said he's noticed that teams aren't shy in their increased coverage and awareness around Giroux, who was a Hart Trophy candidate with 93 points last year.
"Giroux is obviously not flying under the radar anymore," Hartnell said. "I'm sure we get the top teams' shutdown defensemen and top checking line. It's not going to be easy. But hopefully that [increased presence] will filter through the rest of the lines."
Giroux said he believes his line is playing better than the stats would indicate, but it's only tangible results that matter this late in the season.
"There's always room for improvement," Giroux said. "We need to do something to help the team find a way to win."
During the lockout, with Jaromir Jagr and James van Riemsdyk gone, Laviolette had plenty of time to draw up new combinations and seek fresh solutions. He's got one more day off and 3 full days of practice to get as inventive as necessary.
"I'm frustrated. Everyone's frustrated," Hartnell said. "We haven't had one of those games in a while where there's four or five goals and everyone's contributing. It always seems like it's tough hockey. We've got to start scoring. Get simple, go to the net, put your stick on the ice and bang away. We know where we are, where we want to go and how we need to get there."
The Flyers are off again on Wednesday before resuming practice on Thursday ... Paul Holmgren is in Toronto for the NHL's one-day general managers meetings. The meetings were originally supposed to take place in Boca Raton, Fla., but were shortened due to the lockout. One topic on the agenda is the possibility of a coach's challenge during games ... Forward Harry Zolnierczyk served the final game of his four-game suspension on Monday in Tampa.
(subhead) Quotable "Hopefully they lose and hopefully there's not too many of those three point games. That's what hurts the most, if the Devils and Rangers get two and one, or whatever. You can't do much of anything."
-Scott Hartnell on the Flyers' hopes during their five-day layoff between games this week.