- Rob Parent
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PHILADELPHIA -- By now, it is a personnel issue that long should have been settled. Two straight first-round playoff disasters, a mutiny against the team followed by a team mutiny against the coach followed by a season of rebuilding from within.
Through it all, no one has quite been able to figure out the mysterious man behind the mask. This is the frame through which Roman Cechmanek's view of NHL life has been structured. A picture that, once again, everyone expects the puzzling Philadelphia goaltender to shatter.
It could all crumble to pieces again Monday night when the Flyers play for their playoff lives in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Ottawa Senators at First Union Center.
Once again, the billing for this game -- as it was in the last series against Toronto, as it was last year against Ottawa and the year before that against Buffalo -- is a one-night competency test for the unorthodox Czech goalie. It will be this way until such time when there's no longer a question of whether the Flyers can or cannot win a Stanley Cup with Cechmanek in their crease.
Yes or no.
The opinions continue to pile up.
"Nothing was said to him," the Flyers' Keith Primeau said of Cechmanek after the goalie was pulled halfway through a 5-2 loss in Game 5. "Roman's the type of guy we just need to let regroup. We're disappointed and we're calm. It wasn't like we played five overtimes and lost. We got beat. We know we can be a whole lot better, and we have to be better."
"He's been there all year long for us," backup goalie Robert Esche said of the oft-overwrought but statistically stirring Cechmanek, whose two shutouts represent the only two Flyers wins over the Senators. "He's a great goaltender, and he's going to be our goalie right until the end."
Whenever that may come.
The answer could come Monday. It could be delayed through a Game 7 Wednesday at Corel Centre. Or if the odds are bucked and history suddenly starts smiling on the wretched sporting masses of Philadelphia, perhaps nothing will be answered until the Flyers play a conference finals series against the arch-rival New Jersey Devils.
Of course, this is no time to look ahead.
"We have to be more desperate and more determined now," Primeau said. "It's do or die now. If you win it's another opportunity. If you lose you go home. There's not a guy in our locker room that's prepared to say our season is over."
Instead of talking then, they should do something about it.
The Flyers' problems begin but certainly don't end with their loveable power play. They are 0-for-14 in this series on it, zilch-for-22 on the road in the postseason and 5-for-46 overall in the playoffs.
Yet coach Ken Hitchcock continues to remind everyone that penalty killing should be foremost in his club's instant improvement plans.
"We went through this same thing (heading into) Game 7 in the Toronto series," said Hitchcock. "Quite frankly, we made some fundamental mistakes. It wasn't so much what Ottawa did. We made some fundamental errors killing both penalties and we paid for it."
It's logical to point a finger at the Flyers' penalty-killing unit as the culprit in making the Senators' path to victory a smooth one. The Sens scored two power-play goals in each of Games 3 and 5 and, not-so-coincidentally, won both of them. In the two games the Flyers won, the Sens were a combined 0-for-7 on power plays.
But taking a cue from such unspecial special teams production, the Flyers' top scorers have collectively gone to sleep in this series.
Mark Recchi and Jeremy Roenick, the two offensive stars of the quarterfinal marathon victory over Toronto, have one goal and three assists between them against Ottawa. It's not only the Senators' formidable defensive style bogging them down, but a pair of untimely injuries.
Already bogged by Tony Amonte, who has scored all of one playoff goal, Roenick is also suffering from a possible triceps tear in his right arm. And Recchi, also dealing with linemates who have been offensive shadows of themselves, is hobbling around with an undisclosed ailment.
As for those linemates of his, John LeClair might want to find out if it's his surgically repaired shoulder or long-aching back that is rendering him ineffective. And Michal Handzus has appeared dazed every time the puck has touched his stick, except the time it bounced off the edge of it and went past Patrick Lalime for what would be a game-winning goal in Game 4.
Did we mention that, in this series underscored by the clamoring to criticize Cechmanek, the Senators didn't score in either Flyers victory?
Only Cechmanek could shut out a President's Trophy opponent twice in the first five games of a series and still head into a possible elimination game wearing a thorny crown.
That could have something to do with the strange air in Philadelphia, which when blowing the wrong way (off the Delaware River, usually) can turn every sports fan into an insufferable pessimist.
Or it might have to do with the North American hockey media, who grew to admire Dominik Hasek's achievements only after he won enough Vezina Trophies to obscure the chaotic style NHL media purists disdained and often dismissed.
They can only blink blanks when staring down at Cechmanek, whose goaltending fashion is even more daring than his more accomplished retired countryman.
"Well, you know me," Cechmanek said. "I have no style."
He's been cheered for making saves off his chest that made him look like a chest-thumping running back celebrating a collegiate touchdown, and laughed at for allowing rebound goals across the other side of the crease while he was doing The Bump with the Corel Centre ice surface.
He's amazing or absurd, great or goofy, inspirational or fatal. There is usually no in-between in the blinking eyes of the beholders.
Even Hitchcock doesn't seem completely at peace with the presence of Cechmanek. He railed before the playoffs that, yes, while the chaos in the crease is hard to watch sometimes, the puck stops more often there than it does in almost every other NHL arena's home crease.
Hitchcock could point at regular-season statistics, which show Cechmanek in the top five of just about every goaltending category three years running. Hitchcock would thump the semifinal scorebook, showing Cechmanek with two shutouts and allowing the Senators just 10 goals while he was on the ice.
But what did Hitchcock say about his goalie after that 1-0 Game 4 Flyers win?
"He was good," Hitchcock said. "Tonight the roller-coaster was in the 'Start' position."
Now Cechmanek's third Flyers season is rounding another critical turn. He has been typically running the performance gamut while his teammates -- despite their almost historic power-play deficiencies -- have survived on guts and desire.
Overall, this has been a terrific playoff season in Philadelphia, one the Flyers swear won't end before its time. If and when it does, the question of the ages will again come back like a puzzling Philadelphia poll:
Is Roman Cechmanek a championship-caliber goaltender?
The blank stares are still looking down for an answer.
Rob Parent of the Delaware County (Pa.) Times is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.