The goal light flashed red and the horn blew and this was going to be such sweet relief for Vinny Lecavalier, such sweet, sweet relief.
He was alone in front of the Los Angeles Kings' goal, the puck on his stick after a slick little backhand pass from Brayden Schenn, his eyes locked on 23 square feet of untended net, and at another time, in another year, this would have been so easy for him.
Fifteen seasons in the NHL, 398 career goals, a five-year, $22.5 million contract that he signed with the Flyers in July - Lecavalier was supposed to slam that puck into the net past Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, tie the score Monday night at the Wells Fargo Center, get the Flyers back in position to secure a sixth consecutive victory. It is why he is here.
Instead, Lecavalier mistimed and mishit his shot, sending the puck on a journey only a Warren Commission member could appreciate: off the left post, off the underside of the crossbar, off the right post, never across the goal line.
"I thought maybe it hit the back of the net," he said. "I don't think I've ever seen three posts. I've seen two. I guess it happens. Nothing you can do about it."
The Flyers lost, 3-2, and as well as they have played of late, as scary as they have become as a prospective postseason opponent in the Eastern Conference, it is difficult envisioning their making a deep playoff push without Lecavalier as one of their lead dogs. He has one goal in his last nine games and just 15 in 58 games this season - a level of production that can't come close to justifying the investment the Flyers made in him.
"Everybody misses opportunities or goals," he said. "Obviously, I would have liked to have tied it up - probably be a different game. But I've got to move on. If it didn't go in, it didn't go in. If it hit three posts or one post, it's still a post, and it's still not a goal. It was a great opportunity, a great play by my teammates, and I guess I got unlucky on it."
The Flyers had come to a reasonable calculation in the offseason: It was worth letting Danny Briere sign somewhere else for the sake of bringing in Lecavalier. He will turn 34 next month, is three years younger than Briere, more adept at winning faceoffs, and at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds better built to withstand the rigors of an 82-game regular season. And if it appears now that the Flyers overpaid him, well, they have a long tradition of sparing no expense in their never-ending pursuit of a third Stanley Cup.
So far, Briere hasn't given the Flyers reason to regret his departure; he had 12 goals in 59 games entering Monday. But his value to the franchise over his six years here was never as much about his regular-season statistics as it was his uncanny and reliable ability to elevate his game in the playoffs. Over 68 postseason games with the Flyers, Briere scored 37 goals, nine of them game-winners, and had 72 points. Whenever it seemed appropriate to question whether Briere had been worth the eight-year, $52 million deal the Flyers had given him, the easy answer was to wait until spring, and Briere always delivered.
Lecavalier can still validate his acquisition in the same way Briere used to. The Flyers have become a fun story, playing themselves into the thick of the playoff race, buying into coach Craig Berube's system and its emphasis on defense and checking, their offense spread throughout their lineup.
Yet Lecavalier has remained a resource that's been left untapped. He was the team's best forward for the season's first month, but since missing a month with an injured back, he has struggled. Schenn has supplanted him as the second-line center, has forced him to move to left wing, and in a postseason series against an elite goaltender such as the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist or the Bruins' Tuukka Rask, Lecavalier's regaining his scoring touch stops being a luxury. It becomes a necessity.
"Obviously, I want to produce more," he said, shaking his head in the locker room after the game. Then he repeated the sentence, because what else was there to say?
The numbers are what they are. Three posts, one post - it doesn't matter. Once mid-April arrives, Vinny Lecavalier has to leave no doubt, has to bury that puck in the back of the net. It is why he is here.