PITTSBURGH - No matter how many shots they take, how many hits they throw, how many chances they get against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Philadelphia Flyers must find themselves wondering if they're replaying last season's playoff series all over again.
They get off to a slow start and they can't catch up. They can't find a way to get the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury consistently. They can't slow down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Just like last year.
Because they can't, the Flyers are down to what might be their last game of the season. On the road. In an arena where they are 0-5 during the playoffs the last two seasons.
"I don't think any of us would deny it's a big road in front of you now, a big hill to climb, being down 3-1," the Flyers' Mike Knuble said Wednesday.
Especially when the Flyers, who led Pittsburgh in the standings nearly all season, didn't expect to be on the verge of elimination in a Game 5 against Pittsburgh for the second successive spring. They lost Game 5 there 6-0 during the Eastern Conference final last season, but no one among these Flyers expects a similar letdown Thursday night.
Coach John Stevens saw too many positives among all the negatives of a 2-1 loss at home in Game 4 on Tuesday night, when the Flyers were 0-for-8 on the power play and put only one of 46 shots past Fleury, yet still had countless chances to win.
Stevens isn't predicting outright the series will turn Thursday, but he obviously believes it could.
"I thought our team played unbelievable. ... I really think we're on the verge of something could happen here," Stevens said. "I honestly believe that.
"I like the way our team has gotten better every game in the series. We intend to continue that path here going back into Pittsburgh. I think our last game was our best game."
Except it was another loss, and the Flyers can't afford another of those against Pittsburgh. The Penguins once blew a 3-1 series lead, against the Islanders who they led 3-0 in 1975, but they haven't done it since. Of the 229 teams that trailed an NHL playoff series 3-1, only 20 recovered to win. The last to do so was Montreal against Boston in 2004.
The Flyers' only chance of making it to the second round is for the Penguins to falter badly.
That requires the Flyers to win twice in Pittsburgh, plus win another game in Philadelphia. It also means solving Fleury, who has controlled them most of the series. And maybe getting over the mental block of not being able to beat the Penguins when it counts. The Penguins are 7-2 in the playoffs against them the last two seasons.
"We know we're going to see their best game," the Penguins' Bill Guerin said. "They've been getting better every game.
"They played well (in Game 4). They'll rise to the occasion and hopefully we'll come with our best."
With the teams playing every other night as long as the series lasts, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma held an optional skate Wednesday in which mostly backups took part barely 12 hours after Game 4 ended across the state. Most players did only off-ice conditioning work.
Those players who showed up raved again about Fleury, who stopped 45 shots during what probably was his best career playoff game. His best save came against Daniel Briere, when Fleury shifted from one side of the net to the other while leaning backward to twist and make the stop.
Former Penguins player Phil Bourque, now a radio colour analyst, said such an acrobatic play belonged in Cirque du Soleil.
"It's one of the best goaltending performances I've seen in the playoffs," said Penguins forward Chris Kunitz, who saw similar goaltending from Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov while with Stanley Cup-champion Anaheim in 2007. "He made a lot of point-blank saves for us.
"For whatever reason when they put the pressure on, he played his best."
With the Flyers on the power play so much, the Penguins needed every one of those saves in the kind of performance Crosby said every team needs at times to keep a playoff run going.
"He was there making the big saves when we had breakdowns," Bylsma said. "He had a couple of big glove saves there when they had guys in the slot. ... That was a game our goaltender won for us."
One more win, and the Penguins will advance to the second round for the second successive season. One more loss, and the Flyers will spend another off-season wondering how they let another series against Pittsburgh get away.
Last spring, the Penguins won the fifth game of their series against the Rangers and Flyers while up 3-1.
"We want to finish it off," Crosby said. "As desperate as they are, we want to make sure that our intensity level is there and we play with the same amount (as the Flyers) if not more.
"Certainly we have to play with desperation, too. ... It takes four games and we've got three and it doesn't get any easier."