THE FLYERS are stuck in no-man's land.
Entering yesterday's games, they were a full 10 points out of both a ticket to the Stanley Cup playoffs and the largest lot of pingpong balls in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes.
You would not be wrong to think these are the darkest times for the Flyers' franchise since the string of five consecutive fruitless seasons in the early 1990s, save for that aberration in 2006-07.
The Flyers have an unthinkable ending to their eight-game road trip to thank for that.
If we're being real, though, it was probably an uphill climb for the Flyers even after the 3-0 start in Toronto, Winnipeg and Minnesota. It's easy to forget after the wins that the Flyers trailed by multiple goals in both games in Canada, requiring a furious last-minute comeback in Manitoba to force overtime before winning.
Even if you slice the odyssey in half - the first four games being tough, the last four not so much - the Flyers still came through with a 3-1-0 mark after losing in Nashville.
It is still hard to fathom what played out next: four straight losses against teams in 23rd place or lower in the standings.
In a strange way, the trip perfectly encapsulated one of the roots of the Flyers' problems. They are a flawed team that, probably because of the crest on the front of its jersey, believes it is better than its competition.
You can talk about parity, how every night in the NHL's salary-capped world is tough, how every team works hard. That's coach-speak. It's impossible to argue the Flyers did not spend time glancing at the standings before playing last week. Losing one or two games out of those final four could have happened to any team, especially on the heels of a long trip that changed time zones five times for eight games.
How else do you explain a maddeningly inconsistent team that has beaten the defending Cup champion Kings twice, taken the Ducks to overtime twice, and pounded the Penguins this season?
When looking at the standings, the Flyers must have glanced over their own name, buried near the bottom on that list.
If an utterly lifeless loss in Carolina wasn't enough of an alarm bell, the Flyers rolled over completely the next night in New Jersey against a video-game all-star team from 2001. Forty-two-year-old Jaromir Jagr netted a hat trick in the first half of the game; Patrik Elias (38) and Scott Gomez (35) scored the other two goals.
It had been since Nov. 16, 1993 - those similarly dark times - since three players older than 35 scored against the Flyers in the same game, when Bryan Trottier (37), Joe Mullen (36) and Kjell Samuelsson (35) did it.
At least those Penguins had won recent, back-to-back Stanley Cups. The Devils just fired their coach the day after Christmas and had only won twice in their previous 12 games.
Naturally, the refrain from the Flyers' locker room today will be about digging out of this hole, about not quitting. We're not yet even halfway through the season, but this is bigger than just a hole. It is a gulf.
The numbers say the Flyers (14-18-7) need to go a sobering 28-11-4 for just a 50-50 shot at making the playoffs, according to SportsClubStats.com. Even that might not get them in.
How hard is it to make up ground in the standings? Ask the Blue Jackets. They were 12 points out of a playoff spot in November. After a 9-1-1 run, they were nine points back. Grabbing 19 out of an available 22 points got them a net of three points.
Does even a 9-1-1 run for a team that gave up four or more goals in five out of eight games on this road trip sound like one the Flyers are capable of making?
For once, this isn't a conversation about goaltending. Steve Mason has a .916 save percentage with a porous defense in front of him, a mark that would be .930 or higher for any solid defensive team with the way he has played.
Perhaps what is most depressing about the Flyers, what has this proud fan base most frustrated, is the limited possibility for change. General manager Ron Hextall inherited a defense full of untenable contracts - ones that don't begin to expire until 2016. Up front, the secondary young pieces Hextall seems least inclined to move aren't doing much to inspire confidence for the future.
Even more mind-sapping is that the Flyers are seemingly throwing away worldbeater seasons from Jake Voracek and Claude Giroux. The Flyers have two of the top five scorers in the league and sit in 25th place.
There are serious, fundamental roster flaws that not a coaching change, or a few shootout wins, or even a miraculous playoff appearance will fix. The only solution is time, which will make the rest of this season feel like an even more bitter pill to swallow.