NEW YORK - Let's dispense with the time-tattered banalities at the start.
If the Flyers lose this first-round series - and after the Rangers' 4-2 victory in Sunday's Game 5, it's likely they will - it won't be because they didn't play with enough effort or tenacity or aggressiveness. It won't be because their goaltending was somewhere between squirrelly and god-awful, or because their coach had them so unprepared for the playoffs that the team captain was willing to spearhead a locker-room mutiny for the sake of a change behind the bench.
All of those scenarios have played out for them in postseasons past, but this time, the Flyers are a game away from elimination for a far simpler reason: They are the lesser team. They are losing to the Rangers on merit, and if they're somehow to win this series, they'll have to overcome more than Henrik Lundqvist or Martin St. Louis or a group of Rangers defensemen who move the puck out of their zone with nary a hiccup. The Flyers will have to overcome their own limitations, and that challenge appears too great for them, trailing by three games to two, having been outplayed for most of those five games.
"We lost the game in the first period [with] our execution in general," Flyers coach Craig Berube said. "We had some opportunities, a two-on-one. There were plays that if we executed, we would have had success."
Berube spent much of Game 5 shuffling players from one forward line or defensive pairing to another. Scott Hartnell went from the first line to the second line, and Brayden Schenn saw time with Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek, and still the Flyers scored two or fewer goals for the fourth time in five games. Alain Vigneault hasn't made the same sorts of adjustments; he hasn't had to. His team is on the whole faster and more creative and doesn't labor to generate scoring opportunities in the manner the Flyers do.
The Rangers handed them two early power plays, and the Flyers were so ineffectual that it was as if they were trying to open a door without turning the knob.
"It was more the quick-execution plays," Flyers forward Vinny Lecavalier said. "The passes were maybe a little off, or sometimes for you to get a goal, you need to make two or three good passes in a row to get an opening for that shot. It seemed that we couldn't get that."
There's an obvious joke to be made that, until Lecavalier's long slap shot sneaked through Lundqvist's pads late in the second period Sunday, no one has spent more time observing the play in this series than he has. But he won a championship in 2004 with a Tampa Bay Lightning team whose primary strength was its core of skilled forwards and defensemen, and his comments struck at the heart of a truth about playoff hockey: At this time of year, everyone raises his game. Everyone plays harder.
The difference between a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup and an early postseason exit often is a roster's overall level of talent. It's the ease with which a team can carry out the game's fundamentals, and if there was a symbol of the gap between the Rangers and Flyers in that regard, it was made manifest with 3 minutes, 40 seconds remaining in the second period, when Dominic Moore stole the puck from Hall Gill and beat Steve Mason with a wrist shot for a 3-0 New York lead.
Understand: Gill wasn't completely to blame for that goal. Braydon Coburn set off the whole sequence with a panicky, too-firm pass that twisted and tied Gill into a 6-foot-7 anchor bend. That's the thing, though: Gill is 39 years old, and he suited up Sunday for the first time in the series after appearing in all of six games during the regular season. So it's not surprising that he couldn't pull off a slick defensive play with an opposing forward bearing down on him.
But then, it's telling that he was on the ice at all. It took just one injury, to Nick Grossmann's leg in Game 4, for Gill to get into the lineup, revealing a lack of depth on defense that is debilitating in the modern NHL. If Berube believed he had no better options available to replace Grossmann, if a franchise can't acquire or develop a younger, more skilled defenseman to supplant Gill, then it has failed to recognize where games are won and lost these days, and that's a problem that goes beyond a single playoff game.
"Down in the third period, you saw the desperation," Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. "We need to see more of that."
MacDonald's right, and that's the most foreboding aspect now for the Flyers. They have to sustain over 60 minutes a pitch that a more formidable team can reserve for a game's most anxious moments. Maybe they'll summon that sort of effort Tuesday night in Game 6, or maybe Mason will rescue them just as he did in Game 4. Those are their best hopes. Those are their only hopes, really. It's too late to get better players.