PHILADELPHIA - The Philadelphia Flyers expected an off-season of major change would bring them closer to a Stanley Cup. With the NHL season entering its third period, they are no closer to even winning an Atlantic Division title.
After a solid start, the Flyers are scuffling, suddenly a bad game or two away from falling to fourth in the division.
The New York Rangers have emerged as not only the class of the Atlantic, but tops in the Eastern Conference, and should they keep winning, and enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, they can look at their total domination of the Flyers as a reason for their success. They are 5-0 this season against their neighbours from the City of Brotherly Love.
That puts a division title out of reach for Philadelphia.
Second place is looking kind of shaky, too.
The Flyers are 31-18-7 (69 points) heading into Thursday's game against Buffalo, 10 points behind the Rangers. The Flyers had the same number of points as the Pittsburgh Penguins and were just one point ahead of the New Jersey Devils, entering Wednesday's action.
"I'm not ready to paint such a negative picture as everybody else is," coach Peter Laviolette said.
With good reason. After all, in 2010, Philadelphia clinched a playoff berth on the last day of the season, and rode it all the way to an Eastern Conference title and a loss to Chicago in the Stanley Cup Finals.
So, slump or not, it's still too early to discount any team's Cup chances, even one that hasn't won the crown since 1975.
The Flyers, though, surely expected to at least be in the thick of the race for the No. 1 seed when general manager Paul Holmgren decided last summer to shake up his team. Mike Richards (Los Angeles Kings) and Jeff Carter (Columbus Blue Jackets) haven't put up the kind of numbers that would make Holmgren regret his trades.
But even without those enigmatic players, there are still issues at play in Philadelphia.
Ilya Bryzgalov's erratic play in net—and head-scratching comments—has the Flyers wondering when he will live up to the contract worthy of an elite goalie. He is a pedestrian 19-11-6 with a 2.78 goals-against average. Bryzgalov, out of action for three games with flu-like symptoms, should start against the Sabres. Laviolette had to defend his relationship with Bryzgalov this week and insisted the two are still working on it.
The Flyers are on a two-game losing streak and have dropped five of six overall. Three of those losses came at home.
Some of Philadelphia's problems are obvious. Bryzgalov. Losing captain Chris Pronger for the season. Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen not executing like a top defensive pair. A 1-5 record in shootouts. Trouble on special teams, including four consecutive games without a power-play goal.
On and on.
But there's no excuse for the Flyers to play like bottom-feeders at the Wells Fargo Center, usually one of the more intimidating arenas for the opposition. The Flyers are 13-9-5 at home, site of the next two games, including Saturday's showdown against the rival Penguins.
"I don't have an answer for that," Laviolette said.
The Flyers had a three-day break between games, a needed respite after playing eight times in 13 nights following the all-star break. They had more good news Wednesday when forward James van Riemsdyk returned to practice after missing the last month with a concussion.
Laviolette hoped to find some solutions to spark the Flyers.
"I don't necessarily know that there's one thing you can point to," Laviolette said. "We lost a couple of big games and that was disappointing."
After the Rangers beat Philadelphia 5-2 on Saturday for their seventh straight win over the Flyers, Timonen said he was disappointed with their effort against a top team in a home game.
Timonen has seen, up close, in loss after loss, why the Rangers are rolling in the East.
"They play the system every night. They play the same way every night," Timonen said. "There are no surprises, and if there is a breakdown, the goalie makes the save. They block a ton of shots and somehow, they get the job done."
The Flyers' losing streak against New York is the longest skid versus the Rangers since they lost 10 in a row from Nov. 28, 1971 to Jan. 14, 1973. That same streak extended into a 13-game winless streak (0-11-2) that lasted through Dec. 26, 1973.
They play one more time on April 3 in Philadelphia.
"I don't think we own them by any stretch," Rangers forward Ryan Callahan said.
The record suggests otherwise.
While the Flyers followed their last loss to the Rangers with one to the imposing Detroit Red Wings the next day, perhaps Timonen's criticism can serve as motivation down the stretch.
"I have no problem with him putting his voice out there," Laviolette said. "He's one of the leaders on this team."
It's needed. The Flyers do not plan to name a new captain as Pronger sits out the season because of the devastating effects of a concussion.
It's too late for Pronger. But it's not for the Flyers.
At least not yet.