CHICAGO - Dejected and shaking his head, Ray Emery skated to the Flyers' bench 1 minute into the third period and patted Steve Mason on the pads as if to say, "Good luck."
Craig Berube had no plans to pull Emery - especially not after he received a standing ovation less than 2 hours earlier in his first game back at the United Center since helping the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup last June.
Berube had no choice, even with rest needed for Steve Mason and the Canadiens waiting for the Flyers back in Philadelphia. Six goals was enough. He couldn't let Emery dangle at the end of the rope any longer.
"I didn't want to leave him in there," Berube said. "I just wanted to get him out of there."
With Emery on the bench, exhausted and exasperated, Berube walked to tap him on the helmet and tell him last night's beating didn't rest on his shoulders. He probably should have apologized that Emery switched teams last summer.
Because if last night was a proverbial measuring stick for the Flyers against the league's uncontested elite, they came up embarrassingly small.
By the end of the 7-2 shellacking, it appeared the Blackhawks were simply toying with their once-Stanley Cup-worthy opponent while 21,141 sang along mockingly to "Chelsea Dagger." With a national-television audience as witness, the size-up looked exactly like one you might expect between the NHL's No. 1 and No. 24 teams.
"It was a big test," Flyers forward Jay Rosehill said. "We started well, had our share of controlling the play. When you make a couple mistakes against a team like this, they make you pay."
Chicago skated circles around the Flyers, scoring on accidental gaffes (like when Brent Seabrook broke his stick on a slap shot) and took only 20 seconds to beat Mason after stupid, frustration penalties sent Rosehill and Luke Schenn to the box.
Wayne Simmonds called the Hawks the "best team in the league."
"There's going to be frustration," Emery said. "I like that. You show me a good loser and I'll tell you he's a loser."
It was the Flyers' second-most lopsided loss of the season - and definitely more deflating than their 7-0 loss to Washington on Nov. 1. That's because maybe, just maybe, the Flyers thought they might be catching Chicago at the right time. Both of the Blackhawks' top two netminders - Corey Crawford and Nikolai Khabibulin - were out with injuries. Perhaps the Blackhawks would be tired and smelling themselves after a ho-hum, 6-2 win less than 24 hours earlier in Dallas.
Instead, Chicago showed why it has won two Stanley Cups in the last 4 years. It scored six or more goals for the third straight game. Chicago has nearly as many goals (129) through 34 games this season as the Buffalo Sabres are on pace for the entire, 82-game season (130).
"If you take a few shifts off against a team like this, it's going to show," defenseman Nick Grossmann said. "I think we've still got a lot of work ahead of us."
The Flyers limped home from their seasonlong, 13-day road trip with a surely quiet flight home and a 2-3-1 record. They picked up five out of a possible 12 points, leaving them in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division at a time when at least two teams ahead of them are fighting to stay afloat.
"I'm not satisfied with the trip," Berube said. "I'm certainly not, I don't think my players are, either. It could have been better."
It was a 6,801-mile jaunt filled with highs and lows - from a furious third-period comeback against the Red Wings and a shootout win over the Predators, to a seesaw loss in Ottawa and a chilling Chicago whiteout. The trip as as inconsistent and rocky as the Flyers' season so far.
"Everyone in that locker room expects better from us," Rosehill said. "We know it's in there. You see good hockey is being played on this trip, but it's not being played every night. That's the most frustrating part."
Danny Briere returns to the Wells Fargo Center tonight for the first time as a Canadien . . . There are only four players on the Flyers' current roster left from the team that fell to the Blackhawks on June 9, 2010 in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals: Braydon Coburn, Claude Giroux, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell. Assistant coach Ian Laperriere played in that game, too . . . Look for defenseman Erik Gustafsson to possibly return to the lineup tonight against Montreal after sitting out seven straight games.