NEW YORK - Bill Barber once won the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL's best coach. Craig Ramsey and John Stevens both once led the Flyers to the brink of a Stanley Cup finals.
Like Craig Berube, none of these men had been a head coach before they took control of the Flyers. And like Berube, their official scoresheet began right about now, in the middle of January, when the hot streaks during the first half of this 82-game grind begin to even out, and teams either develop a personality and prosper - or fade without one.
The Flyers got stomped in two games over the weekend, and, boy, did it feel like October all over again. They lost to Tampa Bay, 6-3, at home Saturday and they were run over by the Rangers in a 4-1 loss last night in New York. They couldn't get the puck out of their end at the beginning of both games, ran into each other repeatedly as if their roster had been assembled hours before the game, and took a ridiculous number of penalties. Worst of all, at times they looked as overwhelmed as did the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that faced the Soviet Union here 10 days before their miracle on ice in Lake Placid.
The Americans lost that game, 10-3, so this wasn't that bad. And after an inspired 2-month rise from the depths of civic despair under Berube's edgy tutelage, a dry spell for this team was probably inevitable. The Flyers played their best hockey at the end of last night's game, too, so there's your silver lining amid the futility of another loss in New York.
Problem is, the Flyers don't really have much wiggle room here, which should become painfully evident when they see the standings today and realize they are a point from falling out of the playoff mix they worked so hard to re-enter after that horrific 1-7 start.
"The division is so tight," Berube said. "That you lose one or two and you're in fourth now. You've got to win your games and that's all you can look at."
Here's the other issue. After proving their chops on the road against teams with superior records (and possibly rosters), tomorrow the Flyers will begin a stretch of six games against teams with bigger issues than their own. Three are against Buffalo and the Islanders, who both reside at the bottom of their respective Eastern Conference Divisions.
Yummy, right? Except this team's tendency to warm to the task rather than explode from the gate has creeped back into its collective personality. With Steve Mason standing on his head nearly nightly, they even prospered despite that trait, but as Flyers defenseman Mark Streit said last night, "You can't turn it around every game in this league.
"It doesn't work like that. You can do it a few times, but we better be ready Tuesday night. And learn from our mistakes."
With 31 points, Buffalo is legitimately bad. Here's the rub though. The Islanders, whom the Flyers play twice in the upcoming stretch, are currently closer to second place than the Flyers are to the first-place Penguins. Between now and when the Olympic break begins on Feb. 9, the seven teams below Pittsburgh could be reorganized in any manner without raising any eyebrow.
The Flyers already have proven that.
They also have proven they can beat anybody when they work, and lose to anybody - sometimes badly - when they do not. Beyond the soft stretch ahead, there are a half-dozen games that could bury a team immersed in the bad habits exhibited over the weekend. In the 2 weeks leading up to the Olympic break, the Flyers play the Bruins, Red Wings, Ducks, Kings, Sharks and Avalanche.
How they emerge from all that will give us the truest indication of who they are, and perhaps who their coach is too. In gaining points in 26 of the 37 games played since he became their head coach, Berube's most significant accomplishment has more to do with conditioning than system. The Flyers' team speed improved dramatically, which produced both a confidence and a tenacity that made them - at least until this weekend - a difficult team to play.
"Defensively the last few games we didn't play good enough," Streit said. "We gave them too many good scoring chances. You have to work hard without the puck in this league especially in this building and we didn't do that."
"I take the one game at a time approach," Berube said afterwards. "I'm looking at Buffalo now. We've got to get two points. That's a big game."