TAMPA – The Flyers left Florida Friday night feeling a bit better about themselves and leaving their knuckle-gnawing fans not knowing how to feel about them.
Are they the team that tried to mail in games against Buffalo and Florida, two teams that sit below them in the standings? Or are they the spirited group that challenged Columbus and beat the NHL's best team, Tampa, Bay after each of those other games?
"Every night it's a tough challenge,'' Sean Couturier said after Friday night's 5-3 victory over the Lightning. "A new challenge. Every team is good in this league. It's two tough losses against Buffalo and Florida, but we came back with two great efforts against Columbus and Tampa on back-to-back nights. It shows the character of our team.''
You have to give them that. Any team that can manage to stay in the hunt over the last 18 games despite holding a first-period lead just once has earned its character points. Friday night's victory also gave them a 12-0-3 record when entering the third period with a lead, a welcome deviation from their troubles nailing down wins last season.
But character does not equate to consistency. The coach touts it often. Players often echo it.
"For 60 minutes we played pretty consistently and we played well. That's a good sign,'' Valtteri Filppula said after Friday's game. But he was only half right. Typical of their effort for much of this season, the Flyers battled through their inconsistencies Friday rather than eliminating them, leaning hard on a goaltender whose outstanding play over the 13 games, since he became the team's defacto No.1 goaltender, has been the one consistency this team has exhibited.
The Flyers of late have taken the kind of stick penalties that age coaches quickly. Two first-period stick holding penalties Friday and a careless high stick by Dale Weise in the third period tested that character that Couturier touted.
Similarly, their roster is pockmarked with players who have been Forrest Gump's box of chocolates this season: You never know what you're "gonna git."
After seeming to be awakening from a season-long funk just before the holiday break, rookie Nolan Patrick was demoted from the second to fourth line early in the 3-2 loss to Florida on Thursday after an off-the-puck high sticking penalty. As was the case with the Phantoms last season, Scott Laughton has improved his consistency and intensity and is playing his best hockey of the season. Wayne Simmonds after beginning the season on fire, has gone through long pointless streaks. He had two points over his previous seven games before notching a goal and an assist Friday night.
Travis Konecny, Michael Raffl, Taylor Leier – the list of players who have performed at an even level for most of this season is far smaller than the list of those who have not.
No, the Flyers have been anything but consistent, not only this season but the last, when their streaks were just as pronounced and even more toxic than they have been thus far this season.
And so we ask, repeatedly: Is it the oft-discussed-but-hard-to-quantify leadership of the veterans? Is it the third-year coach, who Friday benched a struggling rookie named Travis (Sanheim) at precisely the same juncture he benched a struggling rookie named Travis (Konecny) last season?
Dave Hakstol was bailed out at least temporarily by the play of Sanheim's replacement, Brandon Manning, who scored what turned out to be the winning goal by following his own shot and wrapping it around the Lightning net. But the debate will likely go into the new year the way it did when Konecny sat last year, and again after a costly turnover in early February. Specifically, is this why Hakstol is the right man for this rebuilding team or the wrong one?
"We all have to meet expectation levels,'' general manager Ron Hextall said at the season's start when asked about his hand-picked coach's job security. "Our expectation level is the playoffs. That's the first goal, and we'll go from there.''
He also said this at the time: "We have a long-term plan here. And there are things that we do along the way that people may not agree with because a player is young. Well, if a player is young, he still has to do things right. On the ice. Off the ice. … Young players are impressionable, and if you just let them do whatever they want … there are lessons to be learned along the way. And if you don't teach them when they're young, you're doing them a disservice.''
The challenge of course is weaving those lessons into a quest for that consistency. In that he is not unlike the other coach working in the Wells Fargo Center. The difference is that, until this season, no one — Brett Brown's boss, Sixers fans – were judging him by whether he reached the playoffs.
It's hard to tell whether Hextall really expects that, either. But his words have led this team's fans to believe that he does, which is a little unfair to the man he has assigned to teach those impressionable kids.