ON WEDNESDAY, the toxic formula that buried the Flyers in the Metropolitan Division basement earlier this season bubbled to the surface again. Slow feet and sloppy stickwork led to countless penalties, big, juicy neutral-zone turnovers and shoddy work in front of their own net, exaggerating a subpar goaltending performance from Ray Emery, and exaggerating the considerable talent gap between the Flyers and the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in a 7-2 loss.
Last night, against a Montreal team with only a few victories less than those Hawks, the same team that just 24 hours before seemed a psychological and structural mess, fashioned a mostly stifling, 60-minute effort that minimized the number of acrobatic erasures required of their No. 1 goaltender, Steve Mason, and led to a 2-1 victory over the Canadiens and their former teammate, Danny Briere.
It was a statement game, if only to make the point that this team is a little tougher-minded than the one from October.
"I was embarrassed [in Chicago], the whole team was embarrassed," said Michael Raffl, who scored the game's first goal in his new role as first-line winger. "No one wants to lose 7-2."
"I think there's a lot of character in the room," said Flyers coach Craig Berube, who earlier conceded that, "You never know when you come off a long road trip how you're going to come out.
"They were competitive right away. They were certainly not happy with that loss in Chicago because they wanted to show they could compete with that team. We showed up and played a good, tight team game tonight."
That they did, against a Montreal team known for its own tight play and opportunism. Outshot 9-4 in the opening period, Montreal took just 21 shots the entire game and averted a shutout only with Alex Galchenyuk's last-minute goal that just trickled past Mason. So impressive was the team effort that Mason was not named one of the game's three stars by Chris Therien, the former Flyer and current radio broadcaster.
The lack of game fireworks and the clusters of unoccupied seats throughout the Wells Fargo Center muted somewhat the long-anticipated return of Briere. Having played against his old team in Montreal earlier this season, Briere was making his first trip back to Philadelphia, where he starred for over six seasons, since he was bought out last summer, following one of his worst seasons.
Earlier in the day Briere was needlessly apprehensive about the reception he might receive, and found himself on the bench when a video montage of his greatest exploits were played overhead just over 7 minutes into the game. As it ended, those in the seats stood and cheered lustily, and Briere stood as well, waving appreciatively to the crowd.
For those fans, it was the best kind of homecoming. Briere had one golden chance with about 2 minutes gone in the second period when he found a loose puck at Nicklas Grossmann's feet and fired high at Mason. But Mason got a blocker on it, sailing it wide and preserving the Flyers' one-goal lead at the time.
Raffl provided that skinny lead at 13:57 of the first period, at the end of a stretch of sustained pressure. After nearly missing on a backhanded try, Giroux won a scuffle off his own faceoff, fed Jakub Voracek behind the goal, and he in turn sent it into the slot for Raffl, who fired it over Carey Price's left shoulder.
Giroux made it 2-0 with his sixth goal of the season at 9:43 of the second, converting a cross-ice pass from Voracek, whose overall play earned him the game's third star.
In that, he was representative of his team.
"I think," said Giroux, "that was one of our best 60-minute performances."
One that it could not have accomplished after such a drubbing earlier this season.
"I guess we'll never know," said the captain. "But it's good to see that we can put things behind us and move on. Even if we win 7-0, the next game we have to put it behind us and be ready.
"I think most of our chances offensively were because we played well defensively. When we get to understand that, I think we'll have even more chances."
They'll get a chance to test that on Sunday, when they visit Washington and play the lightning Capitals. Another outfit capable of putting a hurt on a team still finding its way, another chance for such a team to suggest it is moving away from its trouble and toils, and not just skating in circles.