YA GOTTA love this Metropolitan Division. It's like a poker game run by your mother. No matter what happens, there are no big winners and no big losers.

Not yet anyway.

With last night's 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Flyers have ended five of their last seven games on the losing end. Due to the miracle of hockey mathematics - where teams are rewarded for near misses - they still managed six points in that span, and managed to remain among the top three teams in the Met.

But four of those games were against Met teams below them in the standings (at the time). This stretch, which ends with a game in Columbus tonight, was an opportunity to create some distance in the madly mediocre Metropolitan Division, to establish an identity apart from the others, to catapult into a serious conversation about the Stanley Cup.

They mustered three shots in the first period. At home. They fell behind 2-0, tied the game with a late goal in the second and an early one in the third, then were outshot 8-1 in the 6 minutes that followed the tying goal.

Not exactly the identity you want.

"Even when we tied it, we still didn't skate, still didn't work,'' said Scott Hartnell, whose power-play goal through a maze of bodies created by Wayne Simmonds tied the game 3 minutes into the third period. "They were cycling on us for minutes on end. You play hockey like that in our home building, you're going to get whupped.''

That they didn't, that it came down to Jiri Tlusty popping in a rebound at 13:50 after Braydon Coburn's broken stick had the Flyers scrambling in their zone even more than usual, is more a reflection of Carolina's matching lethargy at times.

But the Hurricanes had the better excuse. They were cooped up in a hotel for 2 days, they were on the road. If they had three shots in the first period, it would have made better sense.

"We've got to learn to play better right from the start,'' Hartnell said. "Don't think that we can come out every night like that and come back every night. I would think we'd have that down by now.''

The Flyers sit 16 points from first place and only seven from last as they enter a nasty six-game stretch that follows tonight's game. Over the next 2 weeks, they play Boston (65 points), Detroit (54), Anaheim (79), Los Angeles (64), San Jose (70) and Colorado (67) in succession.

Start like they did last night against any of them, and they're likely to be resting the first line by the third period.

"If I go back to the Islander game [on Monday], I thought we had a lot of energy in the first period down there,'' Flyers coach Craig Berube said. "It's mental in my opinion. You've got to get through it.''

But how? The players say Berube has harped about it. That first period against the Islanders seemed a breakthrough, but then again, they lost that game with a lousy third period.

Like all slumps, it's a problem of confidence. The Flyers play better when they're losing and have nothing to lose, play tentative and sloppy when it's even or they're up. Like their inauspicious start to this season, no two periods are alike, and there are too many players on this team who disappear and re-appear randomly.

Defense is again a problem. It's not only a lack of skating speed, it's puck control and decision-making. Pucks habitually slide off sticks in the crease and offensively at the point. You root hard for a guy like Luke Schenn, and his play has been better overall this season than in the past but, man, when he makes mistakes - like the one that led to Nathan Gerbe's breakaway goal last night - they are truly eye-shielding ones.

Schenn's five-hole mulligan on a pass out to the point sprung Gerbe, who shot it over Steve Mason's shoulder from between his legs, a "SportsCenter'' play-of-the-day candidate for sure.

A note about Mason: He's not the reason for the recent dip, but he seems to have run out of bail money for the time being. He makes some good saves, he lets some in, and like the team playing in front of him, he seems particularly iffy at the start of games. He was at his best in the third period last night, holding the 'Canes as they outshot the Flyers, 8-1, in the 6 minutes that followed the tying goal.

Gerbe's goal had put the home team in a 2-0 hole, a familiar spot over this recent march back to mediocrity - or worse. It's one thing, though, to rally from behind in your own building against teams with similar or worse problems than your own. Doing it on the road against teams with thumb-on-the-throat personalities is a bit more daunting.

Like cleaning out the players at your mother's poker game, it can't be done. The Flyers better find a different identity than the skittish one they've shown this month. Or the only post-Olympic conversation they will be in will be about who to keep, and who to lose.

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon