EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For weeks now, Philadelphia Flyers fans focused on the prospects of losing the Atlantic Division title to either the New York Rangers (a dark-horse favourite in the pre-season) or the New Jersey Devils (who trailed then-first place Philadelphia by 19 points on Jan.6).
Courtesy of their recent struggle, there is one more option to consider.
If the Flyers lose their remaining three games in regulation and the Montreal Canadiens sweep, the once-exalted Flyers fall to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
"We all understand what's going on here, where we are in the standings," said Flyers winger Mike Knuble, following a 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils.
"We all watch the standings and there aren't any excuses."
So what happened in Philadelphia?
The goaltending situation is once again a hot-potato.
Antero Niittymaki, the Olympic MVP and silver medalist for Finland, has a 4-5 record and is allowing over three goals per game. Flyers head coach Ken Hitchcock was concerned that the mental fatigue of the Olympics might have a negative impact on his young goalie.
Hitchcock looks like a sage on this one.
The option of Esche is only slightly better.
He stewed over not getting the starting role for Team USA, and sat on the bench for most of the tournament while the Americans were unceremoniously bounced from medal competition.
Since the Olympics, Esche is 5-7 and is goals-against-average is a just under three goals per game. He has played in five of the last six games for the Flyers and since his "writing on the wall comment" (a reference to Hitchcock's assumed loss in confidence in him) Esche has rolled out a 3-1-1 record.
This isn't a goalie controversy...Esche and Niittymaki should sue their teammates for lack of support.
Hitchcock said as much the other night, telling the media "the goaltending is the least of our problems."
Spin the bottle and it points to the Flyers defence.
Joni Pitkanen and Eric Desjardins keep the Flyers in the game on most nights.
Like the sport-utility-vehicle, the lumbering duo of Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje were built for a different era.
Contrast that with Freddy Meyer, arguably one of the team's most-exciting first-year players. Two years ago in the old-NHL, Meyer toils in the AHL for a few years before heading to Europe, his size (or lack thereof) considered unsuitable. Now he logs considerable time on special-teams, in addition to taking his regular turn on the ice.
Late-season acquisition Denis Gauthier seems like a perfect-fit in Philadelphia.
While Gauthier was serving a two-game suspension this week, the Flyers trotted out David Printz for his NHL debut against Pittsburgh and recalled failed-project Randy Jones from their AHL-affiliate. Both players had Philadelphia fans yearning for the injured Chris Therien to lace-up.
Spin the bottle one more time and it points to the intangibles...the things that can't be taught, that can't be practiced, but can infect a dressing room quicker than a bad case of athlete's foot.
"We don't have one answer, it's not just one thing," offered Knuble. "It's a collection of a lot of little things."
"If this is midseason you move on but we've all been around, whether it's at the NHL level or somewhere else."
"As a player, this is a challenging time in the season and you want to step up," said Knuble, but according to Hitchcock, that wasn't the case.
"This was a big game and we didn't have everyone on board...we made far too many mistakes at the start of the game," said Hitchcock, referring to the five, odd-man rushes surrendered by the Flyers.
Following the Devils' first goal at 10:20 of the first period, the Flyers responded by throwing just three shots on Brodeur over the next nine-plus minutes.
"It's kind of a chess match until that first goal is scored," said Hitchcock, but once it happens, "you usually can tell how (the remainder of the game) is going to go."
"The puck was moving faster than we were thinking at the start."
The Flyers play their regular-season home finale on Saturday against the Rangers before getting another shot at the Devils on Sunday who have won nine of their last 10 games.
"(New Jersey) is priming for the playoffs and we might be waiting to throw the switch," said Knuble.
"We're running out of time."