FOR THE FLYERS, the hell began on March 15: Penguins, Penguins, Blackhawks, Stars, Blues, Kings, Rangers, Maple Leafs and Bruins, with the Blues again, the desperate Blue Jackets and the Bruins again still ahead. Yes, hell. There really has not been any comic relief, not even from the Leafs.

The teams they have played so far averaged 95 points in the standings going into yesterday's games. The Flyers now have 86. They have been punching up for more than 2 weeks and they are thriving. A common sports complaint is that a team plays down to its competition. The lesson we have learned in the last 2 weeks is that the Flyers are playing up. Only the game last week at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers has marred their record.

They have 13 points in those nine games, including the single point earned yesterday afternoon in the 4-3 shootout loss to the Bruins. Thirteen is more than anyone could have reasonably expected.

The way this was supposed to play out - given the schedule and the expectations and just how far behind they put themselves at the start of the season - the Flyers were going to have to win a playoff spot with a rush in the final furlong. That is no longer the case. They are holding a playoff spot today - and if it is tenuous, it is in their hands nonetheless.

The whole vibe is different. It is their reaction to this gauntlet that has changed it. It is as if this stretch of games has shown the Flyers what the playoffs will be like - steeled them for it on the one hand and encouraged them on the other.

"Well, it doesn't hurt," coach Craig Berube said. "We're going to St. Louis and we just played them, it's going to be another real competitive game. They're good teams for a reason. Good teams play with good structure and follow the system and they play extremely hard."

That the Flyers could give it all back in the next week speaks to what the NHL Eastern Conference standings look like these days - and, again, to the cavernous hole that they dug themselves in October - but that is not the expectation, not anymore.

When you hold your own against the best (and hottest) team in the business for two periods, dominate the third period, and get 52 shots in the process, as the Flyers did yesterday against the Bruins, you have demonstrated a readiness for the playoffs that is apparent.

"I think this is a good proving point," goaltender Steve Mason said. "I thought we carried the play for the majority of the game. It's unfortunate not to get the extra point, but I thought we played a really good game."

There is normally a danger in reveling in the earning of the NHL loser's point - because, well, you did lose. Mason made some big third-period saves to keep the Flyers in it until Vinny Lecavalier scored his second goal of the game at 19:35 of the third period to tie it, but it's also true that the Bruins' go-ahead goal by Patrice Bergeron was one that caught Mason a bit unawares. There obviously continues to be room for improvement for everyone.

But on an afternoon that screamed playoffs at Wells Fargo Center, the Flyers looked very much as if they belonged on the ice against a team that is 15-1-1 in March. So, yes, it was the loser's point, but there was a lot in this game for the Flyers to like.

"Yeah, I think so," Mason said. "I think the guys worked extremely hard. We had over 50 shots on net. It shows the kind of pressure we were putting on them for the majority of the game. Right now they're the No. 1 team in the league, and the guys were going toe-to-toe with them. It's a good sign."

The Flyers were humbled by the Bruins in late January, 6-1. Both teams have gotten better since - and we are now to the point where NHL teams measure themselves in more ways than just the standings. The Flyers cannot ignore those standings, obviously - that is their penance for the first month. But they are learning some lessons here: the value of conscientious team play; the wow of Claude Giroux; the opportunities presented by the Penguins; the stylistic challenge of the Rangers; and, now, the validation of their turnaround in game after game through this 3 weeks of hell, including Sunday against the best team around.

As Giroux said, "At this time of year sometimes it doesn't matter, the result, it's just how you feel as a team, how you played as a team, and I think we're pretty happy with how we played."

They are playing like a team that will be a tough out. Everyone can see it. Or, as Bruins coach Claude Julien said, "[The Flyers are] a good team, and if I'm in the other division, I'd be worried about these guys."

Now, all they need to do is get there.

On Twitter: @theidlerich