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Early must-win game for Flyers

They are out of the playoff picture, and with a rugged 8-game road trip coming, tonight's home tilt with Florida is critical.

IT HAS come to this for the Flyers: a seemingly must-win matchup tonight with the suddenly surging Florida Panthers, one week before Christmas, in a game that would have been a throwaway in seasons past.

Except, this isn't last year for the Flyers. The hole to dig out of is even deeper.

"It does feel different than last year," coach Craig Berube said. "It is different. There was a coaching change last year, changing a lot of things system-wise and things like that. It is different.

"But we're at where we're at and we're going to do our best to get out of it and work forward."

On this day 1 year ago, the Flyers were 15-15-4 after a franchise-worst 1-7-0 start.

They were one point back of third place in the Metropolitan Division and a playoff spot. They were only three points shy of a wild-card position. Only one team needed to be jumped over for the possibility of two different playoff spots.

This year, the Flyers are 15th in the 16-team Eastern Conference. They are at least seven points back of a wild-card spot and third place in the Metro; and both the Panthers (wild card) and Rangers (division) have one game in hand.

The Flyers have won half (3-9-3) as many road games (6-8-4) as they did at this point last year and tomorrow they will embark on an eight-game odyssey that loops through Toronto, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Nashville, Arizona, Colorado and Carolina before ending in New Jersey on Jan. 3.

A ticket to the Stanley Cup playoffs cannot be cashed in December, but the Flyers will find out if one can be ripped up before the New Year.

"The whole point of the regular season is to make the playoffs," Claude Giroux said. "We have the tools to make the playoffs. It's good to look at [the standings] and see what's going on. It's a little motivation when you see yourself so far down there, especially with what we have in this room. It's not a position we want to be in.

"Right now, we're obviously in a hole. We can't be looking at the big picture. That's the only way we can climb back up. We can't be worrying about the next 10 games, [saying] we've got to win eight."

Reading between the lines in conversation with Berube, the biggest difference between this year's Flyers and the team that pulled off a similar sweep through the standings seems to be mental fragility. That isn't pegged on the players with letters on their jerseys.

Jake Voracek and Giroux are both top five in the league in scoring. Wayne Simmonds is tied for ninth in goals. Goaltending, for once, has not been the issue.

When it rains for the Flyers, it pours. Healthy scratches have dotted the entire lineup, from high-priced veteran to league-minimum rookie and every player in between. They haven't always bounced back well.

The Flyers also tend to panic in one-goal games (4-6-5). They are built for scoring track meets, not 2-1 wins.

"We have to start winning more of those games," Berube said. "Because if you want to play good defense, then it's going to be tight sometimes.

"I believe in this team. I believe this team needs to learn how to win certain ways. That's what we're doing. We're getting better defensively. Our structure of our game is very good defensively right now. That's the key. You do need to score to win. But you have to score the right way. And you will not win in this league if you don't play the right way."

Berube said it's "part of my job all the time to build confidence and make sure they stay the course." His message to his top scorers yesterday was that "it's OK to play 1-1 hockey." He watched Steven Stamkos and noticed he capitalized on his only real scoring chance Tuesday night, and it was the difference in the game.

"It was a boring game," Berube said. "There wasn't a lot of room out there. There was a lot of broken plays all over the place. I don't have an answer for why [the Flyers] didn't have more jump. They want to. They worked hard in the game. There's nights where you just don't have it, that energy and that pop. We've played a lot of hockey.

"That doesn't mean you can't win the game. That's where our team needs to win the games in those situations."

Last year, Giroux stood on his pulpit on Oct. 21 and declared the Flyers would make the playoffs. Many laughed and snickered, the odds were stacked against them even that early.

This year, there is no bold proclamation. There has been no franchise record-setting, third-period magic. Just "inconsistent hockey," as Berube described it.

"We came back in the third period 12 times last year. That's not going to happen," Berube said. "I'm not thinking about last year. I'm done with last year. I have been done with last year. It's over with me. All I care about is right now, the Florida Panthers. That's it. We put ourselves in a hole. We've got to dig out of it."