A THRILLING and glorious ride ended when it should have.
Beaten by a better team, a more mature team with a greater understanding of playoff imperatives, the Flyers are a better club for it.
They learned this, if nothing else:
They have a chance against virtually anyone as long as they play with abandon.
They will take penalties, but they will draw them, too.
They will give up rushes, but they will get them, too.
They cannot control a game as the Rangers did this series, as the Kings did in their Stanley Cup run.
They can only play.
"The first few games, we didn't initiate enough play," first-year head coach Craig Berube said. "Didn't have enough aggressiveness as a team."
That happened plenty after the first game, too.
Whether the Rangers prevail over the Penguins in the second round does not matter a bit. The Rangers met the Flyers with exactly the opposite sort of force that the Flyers bring. Whomever they face henceforth will be a different animal.
Similarly, the insistence that the Flyers would have walked over Pittsburgh in the playoffs is beyond flawed. Yes, the Flyers owned the Penguins this season.
However, by the seventh game against the Rangers, the Flyers' defense had eroded beyond playoff incompetence. They couldn't clear the puck from their zone, they couldn't manage the middle of the ice, and they were so badly positioned and so slow on their skates that they actually helped goalie Steve Mason by clearing shooting lanes they should have occupied. Without imposing defenseman Niklas Grossman, a Swedish oak felled by an ankle injury in Game 4, the Flyers were diminished past redemption.
They are not diminished going forward. They are so much better today than they were 6 months ago that even the most entrenched curmudgeon incensed at the lack of a championship since Nixon was making news should be heartened.
First, they found a coach, kind of by mistake.
Nobody expected Berube to turn a soft, leaderless, 0-3 team into a playoff contender. The Flyers hoped, at best, Berube could provide stability to a team that just jettisoned its biggest faces and egos: abrasive head coach Peter Laviolette and eccentric goalie Ilya Bryzgalov.
Berube was to cultivate the delicate personalities of Claude Giroux, a star center appointed captain in the absence of other viable candidates; and Mason, whom the Flyers hoped could establish himself as a starter, having shown talent as a rookie in Columbus but having struggled without a firm hand since.
Berube managed both.
Along the way, the Flyers transformed first into a compete club, then into a dangerous one.
Mason happened first. He won the training-camp "competition" for the starting spot from Ray Emery, whose scintillating recent performances as a backup hadn't earned an offer to start anywhere.
While the Flyers found themselves, Mason went 13-3-4 in November and December and kept the team viable. He struggled in the middle of the season, righted himself down the stretch and dramatically emerged as a savior after missing 9 days - and the first three playoff starts - with a concussion.
Mason simply won Game 4 by himself, and he was the only reason Game 7 was not a blowout after 40 minutes.
Give Giroux Game 6.
That sounds too generous, sure, considering Wayne Simmonds scored three goals - Simmonds, the most consistent player on the club this season and the leading goal scorer. It is around him and unstoppable Jake Voracek and stingy Sean Couturier the Flyers will support Giroux.
But Giroux was everywhere in Game 6. It might have been his most significant game as a Flyer.
He scored a goal and assisted twice, a three-point night after the Rangers limited him to two assists in four regular-season games and eight points in 11 matchups this season, including playoffs. He got off three shots and made three big hits in Game 6.
He was aggressive.
Everyone else followed.
Mason saw it, too; and he saw it evaporate in the second period Wednesday. Through clenched teeth, he stood on a makeshift podium after the Game 7 loss and did his best not to berate his teammates too transparently. They let him face 18 shots that period, the period that sent the Rangers to Pittsburgh.
The Flyers are not in Pittsburgh for many reasons.
The absence in the series of well-paid veterans Scott Hartnell and Vinny Lecavalier ranked highly.
The need to start Emery in the first three games is prominent, too, as was the decision to start Hal Gill in place of Grossman in Game 5 instead of Erik Gustafsson.
Nothing resonated more than the continual lack of aggression.
In Game 7, a shorthanded chance by the Rangers in the second period took the Flyers' breath away, and they were thereafter terrified to fail.
They cannot be terrified to fail.
They were not terrified to fail in Game 6, and they dominated it.
They learned that lesson again by the third period Wednesday, but they lacked the energy to do much about it.
"I think our game will grow," Berube said.
It has done just that since he took over.
On Twitter: @inkstainedretch