PITTSBURGH -- Sure, the Flyers are missing Eric Lindros. And any semblance of poise or common purpose. The orange-and-black bandwagon is about to crash through the guard rail, its brakes on fire and its steering gone after an 11-5 loss Tuesday night to the Penguins.
Terry Simpson, a first-year coach who spent Sunday and Monday drilling his team on defensive play, seemed to grow as pale as his gray suit as the Flyers' fifth loss in six games unfolded. Simpson looked as if he had seen a ghost. Bill Dineen's ghost, maybe, or Paul Holmgren's.
It wasn't the worst loss in franchise history -- that one was 12-0, at home against Chicago, Jan. 30, 1969. But it was close. It was a nationally televised debacle for a team that less than a week ago predicted it could handle three to six weeks without Lindros after he tore a ligament in his right-knee Thursday.
The Flyers lost to New Jersey the night Lindros got hurt, 5-3. Then they lost to Buffalo on Saturday, 7-2. Then they came to Pittsburgh. Observers might think they spot a trend, although Mark Recchi, who was minus-three Tuesday night, insisted the problem wasn't Lindros.
ESPN originally thought it was getting Lindros vs. Mario Lemieux, but Lindros's knee and Lemieux's back took care of that. By game time, it wasn't even Rick Tocchet vs. Kevin Dineen -- Tocchet took the night off with sore ribs, and Dineen was sidelined by a sore right shoulder. From a Flyers perspective, this sure looked like a winnable game, a chance at ending a winless streak at the Civic Arena that stretched to Nov. 21, 1990 (now 0-7-3).
"They just toyed with us tonight," Simpson said. "We didn't compete in the right areas . . . It's like somebody just pricked a balloon, the air's gone right out of the guys. We have to regroup."
As the Flyers hustled off to that 11-3 start, their unaccomplished defensive unit was able to hide a bit. The forwards broke up the other teams' rushes in the neutral zone, and Dominic Roussel made up for any mistakes with Vezina Trophy-caliber play in goal.
Tuesday night, Tommy Soderstrom started in goal for the first time since his Nov. 3 heart procedure, and though he didn't perform miracles, he also didn't give up a bad goal. The forwards seemed to wander around, as the Penguins kept flying over the blue line at warp speed, coming at that green defense.
Stew Malgunas one on one with Jaromir Jagr, alone in the slot, isn't a matchup the Flyers would normally seek. Jason Bowen resembled a deer caught in the headlights, and Jeff Finley seemed to be careening into the corner or something while Penguins whacked away at rebounds on Soderstrom's doorstep.
"We talked all week about outnumbered attacks, and we had a ton of them. We talked about winning one-on-one battles, and we lost a lot of one-on-one battles," said Garry Galley, who might be the Flyers' only top-drawer NHL defenseman now.
Pens coach Ed Johnston talked about wanting to "put a little pressure on their 'D,' " not the first time an opposing coach has said something like that lately. You have to wonder if the Flyers, without Lindros, are capable of countering that strategy right now.
The Penguins led, 1-0 after 1:35. Recchi made it 1-1 5:08 into the first, but the Flyers didn't grab a toehold. Ron Francis was alone in front with Dimitri Yushkevich caught high in the slot, and the Pens led, 2-1, 6:37 into the game. It was 3-1 1:05 later as Bryan Trottier scored a goal for his first point since he scored against the Flyers opening night.
The Flyers actually got back to 3-3 before diving off the cliff. Mikael Renberg netted a Ken Wregget giveaway, Joe Beranek whacked in a rebound for his 16th goal, and again, just as after Recchi's early goal, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to refocus and settle down. Again, it didn't happen.
In the blur of goals and breakdowns that followed, only two things stood out -- Jagr finished with a career-high six points, and the Flyers equaled the franchise record for goals allowed in a road game.