THERE ARE games in every team's season that fit the last two the Flyers have played. Reference points, markers, mileposts, however you want to describe them.
Two seasons ago it was those matchups against the New York Rangers, beginning with a Winter Classic lead they couldn't protect, followed by the smallest of leads they could never overcome. New York owned them that season, the way the New Jersey Devils have traded ownership with them over the last 15 seasons, the way the Pittsburgh Penguins have, too.
It's odd, but the Washington Capitals have never quite joined that club, never been the team that has helped the Flyers define themselves, for better or for worse. Some of that has to do with playing in different divisions before this realigned season, but some of it too seems to trace to each team's personality.
The Capitals skate. The Flyers grind. Or so goes the narrative.
But here we are on Dec. 18, and the two teams, separated by only a handful of points in the muck-and-grind Metropolitan Division, have already engaged in three games that will undoubtedly be highlighted in each team's season summary.
"It's true," captain Claude Giroux said after the Flyers' 5-2 victory last night. "This year, there have been games where, a couple hits here and there, a couple penalties, fights. They're a good team. So if you want to be competitive against teams like that, we've got to work hard."
One game was a blowout that ended in an embarrassing fight that forced the league to review its rules. The next, on Sunday, ended with the Flyers folding over the game's final 8 minutes and 40 seconds, allowing Washington to rally from a three-goal hole and win via a shootout.
It was the kind of loss that sends a team spiraling downward. It was the kind of loss that unmasks a mediocre team posing to be more. The Flyers have been fighting both of those specters for much of this uneven season, and that made the latest meeting, just 2 days after a collapse, much more than an opportunity to gain points and position.
Almost from the start, there was a chippiness that often accompanies two games between rivals in a short window. As Giroux watched the play and the puck move away from the boards, Washington's Eric Fehr drilled him, drawing a roughing penalty. Late in the first period, Alex Ovechkin was drilled to the ice by Braydon Coburn moments after Kimmo Timonen clipped him with his stick, a one-two that had the Caps' star squinting as he rose slowly to his feet, aided by his stick.
The headliner, though, came in a second period in which six goals were scored. Chasing down a puck at full speed into the corner with Washington defenseman Tom Wilson, Brayden Schenn was launched head-first into the boards. As players piled into the corner to avenge the hit, Schenn tried three times to get to his feet, collapsing grotesquely each time.
He did not return. There was no medical update after the game but it was apparent that Schenn suffered a concussion and seemed to have also injured his wrist badly. Wilson received 5-minute major penalties for charging and for the fight that followed, and received a game misconduct. The Flyers, who had knotted the game at two a few minutes before, scored two power-play goals during their long man advantage and entered the final period again in control of the game.
"Guys talked about not letting it happen again," said Matt Read, who tied the game and assisted on the game-winner. "We just amped ourselves up in the locker room. We took it as a 0-0 game and we had to come out and get the first goal and stay on our toes and keep them on their heels. Keep getting pucks deep and playing our game."
This time they closed the game out with a solid, stifling third-period defensive effort.
And when it ended, they looked like the team that had suffocated Montreal last week, the team that seemed on its way to doing the same thing Sunday in Washington before all hell broke loose.
And Steve Mason, the goaltender who struggled then and seemed to be fighting himself as this game began as well, was again kicking pucks out as if they were soccer balls, authoritatively, with what goaltender coach Jeff Reese calls "swagger."
A reference point then?
"I think so," said Giroux. "I think we learned from Sunday, We can't be comfortable against any team, but especially guys who can put the puck in the net so easily. I think we learned the hard way, but I think we can take it and keep that experience with us."
On Twitter: @samdonnellon