Jake Voracek started from behind the Flyers net and weaved his way through the middle of their defensive zone, Steve Mason standing not 15 feet from him, Ottawa's Mark Stone lurking. There were just more than eight minutes left in the Flyers' 82d game, and the two players who before Saturday had been the team's best and most valuable were about to tie a fitting bow on this forgettable season.
Voracek tried to deke his way past Stone. He couldn't. Stone stripped him of the puck and skated in alone on Mason, who already had set up two Senators goals himself by fumbling the puck. With one quick fake, Stone slipped a wrist shot past Mason, assuring the Senators of a 3-1 victory and a berth in the playoffs, beginning the Flyers' 40th straight summer of soul searching.
This one promises to be more reflective than most, if chairman Ed Snider allows general manager Ron Hextall to stick to the rebuilding plan that Hextall has said is the franchise's best way forward. Coach Craig Berube might very well be ex-coach Craig Berube within the week. It would be a predictable move, not merely because there's little evidence to suggest Berube is or will be an elite NHL coach, but because replacing the head coach is a timeless tradition both around the league and here in Philadelphia.
But it would also be one of just many possible and necessary changes for a franchise that embarks on a new direction with all the speed and sharpness of an ocean liner, and Berube himself put his finger Saturday on a problem that has plagued the Flyers for too long.
"Our team has to work extremely hard," he said, "and we need everybody on any given night to win a hockey game."
The Flyers have carried and waved that banner for years now - that they're always a hard team to play, that they will outwork every opponent. It's the quality, along with the organization's longtime affection for dropping the gloves and playing jagged-edge hockey, that those who love the Flyers love most about them. It's the organization's ethos, its collective persona, and its presence is considered the cause of the team's successes, its absence the reason for its failures.
That mentality has been particularly prevalent this season. Berube and the players have lamented the Flyers' lack of consistency, shaking their heads over what they regarded as a mysterious trend: They played better against excellent teams than they did against middling teams. But too often that obvious flaw has been framed in the wrong context. The Flyers were inconsistent this season, but it wasn't because they didn't deliver a full effort each game, or because they didn't "play with passion," or because they didn't have enough leadership in their locker room.
It's because they didn't have enough talent.
It's unrealistic to expect every player on a 25-man roster to deliver maximum effort every single night. Striving to play harder and better against a more challenging and accomplished opponent, then experiencing a letdown against a lesser one, isn't a contradiction. It's human nature. Those teams that don't have to spill their guts on the ice 82 times a season and can still win a lot of regular-season games are the teams that can also win championships.
Talent is the great equalizer, the great leveler, and until the Flyers get more of it, their seasons will continue to end as this one did.
"This was the best team I was part of since I got to the NHL," said Voracek, who finished with a career- and team-high 81 points. "Not scoring-wise or playing-wise - obviously we didn't play well enough to make the playoffs - but the guys in the locker room. We had a great group. We went through all the emotions together. Everyone's going to be a year older. I'm sure we're going to get better."
Voracek may be right that the roster, if Hextall were to let it alone over the offseason, would improve merely through maturation. But the suggestion that time is all the Flyers need to grow into a Stanley Cup contender is laughable. What they need are more players like Voracek, like Claude Giroux, like Mason, like the swift, skilled defensemen that the league's finest clubs have and that the Flyers lack.
This was a top-heavy team, relying too much on those three players, asking too much of them, even in the final moments of a lost season. Jake Voracek needed to get past just one Ottawa Senator to start a rush toward the tying goal, but the puck never made it past Mark Stone's stick.
"I've done it a hundred times," Voracek said. "But that's what happens when you do too many things."
It's what happens with a team that has to wring every drop of effort out of every player just to be competitive each night, and Ron Hextall's charge as GM is to change what's long been a terrible hockey tradition here. The process won't be quick. It won't be pretty. But it has to happen, and it has to start now.