BACK WHEN they were finishing in first or second perennially during the Lindros era, the Flyers would often drive their fans crazy by dropping games against second-division clubs. Those teams would treat the game as a barometer to their progress or potential. The Flyers would see it not necessarily as a night off, but one that did not require maximum effort.
Sometimes they were wrong, leaving the false impression that something was lacking in their mettle. More often, they were right, although sometimes not without a frantic finish. Either way, it was not the indicator the lesser team believed it to be. And the proof was what followed, losses to teams with similar talents to their own, and in a similar position in the standings.
This season, the Flyers have shut out the reigning Stanley Cup champions at home and, just the other night, outplayed and defeated a well-balanced St. Louis team on the road. They also have a victory over Boston, a 16-win team, and have beaten the 18-win, second-place Rangers twice already.
And yet they have lost to Colorado, Columbus, Calgary, Vancouver, San Jose and twice to Buffalo - all teams that, like Tuesday night's opponent, began the day with lesser point totals than your Philadelphia Flyers.
For the Carolina Hurricanes, that difference can be directly traced to three, count'em three, overtime losses to the Flyers this season, including Tuesday night's 4-3, er, thriller. Those results imply a certain uniformity, but the truth is all three games played out differently. The Hurricanes blew a two-goal lead in the first one, the Flyers the second, and Tuesday night was a back-and-forth affair that ended, appropriately, with Jakub Voracek sliding a pass across the slot to Shayne Gostisbehere for an easy flip into a wide-open net.
Appropriately, because these two had the game-winners in the previous two games, and because, in Voracek's words, Gostisbehere, the rookie defenseman, who now has three overtime winners since debuting against this team in mid-November, "was built for this" kind of high-risk, high-reward hockey.
Appropriately also because Voracek scored only his second goal of the season earlier in the game, his other one that late-November game-winner against these guys. Tethered to yet another experimental line that included Sean Couturier, Voracek registered three points on seven shots.
For him, nothing could be finer than playing against Carolina.
"I almost forgot how to celebrate one," he said of his second-period tip-in. "But it's only just one game."
Against a team now further below them in the standings. "I think we have to be honest with ourselves," said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol. "I don't think tonight was our best."
That said, the Flyers have played themselves back into the playoff conversation, and Tuesday night began a stretch of favorable matchups that could vault them right into the middle of the mix. Four of their next five games are against teams with worse records than their own, and the other matchup is against the St. Louis Blues, the good team they just defeated, next Monday at home.
But they've already lost to three of those so-called worse teams. And despite better play of late - they are 6-2-1 over their last nine games and are a different team since Gostisbehere joined them - many of their alleged top-flight players, including Voracek, are struggling offensively.
Only four players have double-digit point totals over the first 31 games. Yes, Voracek is apt to shake out of his season-long scoring slump at some point, and between Michal Neuvirth and Steve Mason, there's likely to be a hot goalie streak somewhere in the last 51 games of this season. But this is still a team bogged with third-line and fourth-line type players, and a team weighed down by hefty, unproductive contracts.
This is not an effort issue. There is no doubt that on most nights this team plays at, or even above, its capabilities, its collective heart, its guts. The next shift Wayne Simmonds takes off will be the first of his career. As angry as you are at some of the mistakes Luke Schenn has made, his heart and guts are unimpeachable, as that tussle with Rangers hit man Dylan McIlrath proved a few weeks back.
Tuesday night, it was Simmonds honoring the code, practically jumping over Claude Giroux to get at Carolina's Brad Malone after he dropped a knee on Michael Raffl in full stride and sent him dangerously airborne at midice. Hit with penalties for fighting, instigating and the 10-minute misconduct that automatically goes with it, Simmonds - the team's fourth leading scorer despite his own struggles this season - was lost for much of the second and third periods.
The Flyers survived this because Voracek, Couturier and Matt Read had a good night. Against a bad team, or at least one with as many flaws as this team has struggled with. And because Gostisbehere continued his knack for being in the right place at the right time.
The Ghost has given them life, for sure. And the Flyers should get credit for rising from the dredges their early play put them in. But until they take appropriate care of the sludge of teams they are currently mired amidst, the good teams out there will still be tempted to treat them as an easy night at the barn.