Commentary

Win or lose, Flyers have come a long way

Updated: May 14, 2008, 7:15 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

VOORHEES, N.J. -- Here's the problem with trying to eulogize the Philadelphia Flyers: They won't stand still long enough for you to do it.

Not that you can blame them, as they're not totally dead just yet.

And, in the best tradition of Monty Python, if there were a consistent theme in the team's locker room at its suburban New Jersey practice facility Wednesday, it was this: "But we're not dead yet. In fact, I'm feeling better. I think I'll go for a walk."

More from Pens-Flyers

• It looks like Flyers coach John Stevens will break up his top line of Daniel Briere, Vaclav Prospal and Scott Hartnell, moving Prospal, who hasn't scored in 10 postseason games, off the line and replacing him with Mike Richards.

Richards and Briere, the team's two most talented forwards, have worked together on a potent Flyers power play throughout the season but haven't played together on a regular line since mid-February. Prospal likely will center a line with R.J. Umberger and Joffrey Lupul.

The Flyers have just five goals in three games in the series.

• Injured Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn skated Wednesday for the first time since taking a Hal Gill shot to the face early in Game 1. His eye remains pretty swollen, and his nose and forehead are covered in bruises and stitches.

"He's a funny-looking guy right now. Every time he was handling the puck, it looks like he's got a patch over his eye," teammate Scott Hartnell said.

Coburn was noncommittal about his chances of seeing action in Game 4 on Thursday.

"I can see out of it, but it's easier to see down than up right now," Coburn said. "It's just a wait-and-see sort of thing."

• Someone asked Stevens whether he was thinking of a way to get more pucks deep in the Pittsburgh zone, perhaps lofting pucks over the Penguins' defensemen.

"An aerial attack?" Stevens joked. "Believe it or not, I went to a coaching clinic one time, and one guy presented on the aerial attack. So, I'm going to have to go get my notes out from that one."

-- Scott Burnside

(The operative words being "dead" and "yet.")

Trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0 in the Eastern Conference finals, the Flyers know that unless they are able to pull off a miracle stunt that has been accomplished only twice in NHL history, the end is nigh.

"First of all, the mood, I mean, I love the enthusiasm of the team," Flyers coach John Stevens said after Wednesday's practice.

"We're excited. You just got to relish it. We've got to enjoy it and just thrive out there," forward Scott Hartnell added.

Still, Philadelphia is the third straight team the Penguins have put in this position. They have lost just one game this spring, so the words all have a distinct "whistling past the graveyard" tone to them. It's hard not to have one eye on where the Flyers have come from and the other on where they might go, given that their here and now is pretty grisly. Of all the things being down 3-0 in a series implies -- failure, simply not being good enough -- it does not suggest just how far this Flyers team has come.

At this time last season, Philadelphia was licking its wounds after posting a franchise-worst 56 points. General manager Paul Holmgren then made a series of astute moves, bringing in young players like Scottie Upshall and Braydon Coburn. He brought in one of the game's most underrated puck-moving defensemen, Kimmo Timonen, and a top-flight center, Daniel Briere.

The group gelled and was complemented by the significant maturation of young players like Mike Richards (who morphed into captain material seemingly overnight), Jeff Carter (Richards' draft-class mate) and R.J. Umberger (the team's leading scorer in the playoffs).

The Flyers overcame a 10-game losing streak in February. They dropped both Game 1s in their first two postseason series this spring and came back to win both series. They have endured the long-term injury to offensive leader Simon Gagne.

And it gets better. There are young players waiting in the shadows for their chances, like James vanRiemsdyk, the American winger taken with the second overall pick at last year's draft, and Claude Giroux.

If you look closely, you won't necessarily see a Sidney Crosby or an Evgeni Malkin, but there are similarities between this Flyers team on the ropes and the Penguins team that put them there.

However, if you're looking for introspection or a sense of satisfaction at having defied critics and jumped the learning curve, this is the wrong place. At least, right now.

"I don't think you do that. There'll be times to reflect later on when everything's done," said veteran Mike Knuble, who broke into the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings in the late 1990s. "As a group, as players, you get out there, you want more, you want more of what you've achieved. You want to keep going and keep building.

"I wouldn't expect that out of anybody here, and I don't think they would expect it of me, so you just keep going."

Stevens, who has scrambled his top two lines to try to coax more offense out of his club for Thursday's Game 4, won't be giving any Knute Rockne speeches about the gains they have made.

"Well, to be honest with you, I'd rather not right now. I don't want our guys feeling content with what's gone on this year," Stevens said. "I think that would be the wrong approach. I don't think you can ever be satisfied, whether individually or collectively, that we got in the playoffs, we won a couple rounds.

"We want to keep playing, and we need to win one game," Stevens said. "That's our focus right now. It's not the series. It's the game."

Still, it's hard not to already think of the Flyers in the past tense and imagine what they'll be like with another season under their belts. They already have matured more quickly than most believed possible (again, you hear the echoes of what observers have been saying about the Penguins for more than a year now). Perhaps this experience, however it ends, will serve them well, just as losing last season served the Penguins well.

That's assuming, of course, it will end sooner than later for the Flyers.

Not that you would expect the Flyers to entertain anything but the notion of soldiering on.

"There's four teams left in the league, and 26 other teams want to be in our position," Hartnell said. "We still have a chance, we still can win four in a row, but it starts with that first one [Thursday]."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.