Why not us?"
It's a great slogan to place on a T-shirt, a great axiom for a team whose best-known superstar said yesterday, "I've never really considered myself a superstar."
For the two final weeks of the regular season and the first two improbable rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Flyers have been justifiably proud of their party-crashing status, their ability to bounce back from bad giveaways and bad losses. They are the no-name nomads of these playoffs, at least in the Eastern Conference, vanquishing one of the NHL's best stories (Capitals) and storied teams (Canadiens) in the first two rounds.
But yesterday the slogan lost a word, and it is an important one. "Why Us," became the theme of the day over the airwaves and, I suspect, in the newspapers today, which is unfortunate. Because the Flyers weren't whining as much yesterday as they were answering honestly questions put forward to them. And for every jab at calls made or not made in this series yesterday were four or five lengthy and well-thought admissions that they have been victimized more by their own mistakes than any penalty called or missed.
To their credit, fans resisted the urge yesterday to name officiating or bad bounces as the primary reasons for the Flyers' dilemma in the Daily News Live poll, listing it near the bottom, just ahead of injuries. Unfortunately, the network carrying that poll could not resist that urge, mostly because it fit nicely into a tease for the 6:30 "Sportsnite," but also because it made for a more juicy story.
As is often the case this time of the year, distortion merges with perception for the sake of a good story, as I re-learned last round in asking if nationalism was affecting objective officiating after a lopsided number of penalties were called against the Flyers in the first three games of their series with Montreal.
This series is different though, at least in the Flyers' view. Sure Danny Briere was still miffed that an Evgeni Malkin elbow off the puck was not called, but he also said that "In the first game, I thought the referees did a marvelous job. And we still didn't win." And when someone tried to bait him into a discussion of the Penguins drawing penalties through theatrics, he said -- with a wry smile -- "We have some guys who can embellish a little, so it goes both ways."
The truth is this has not been the Montreal series, not by a longshot. The Penguins clearly scored an additional goal Sunday night, which offset the ridiculous penalty called against Derian Hatcher that led to the Penguins' tying goal. Malkin surely should have drawn something for his cheap shot, and Briere was pushed into Fleury for that goalie interference call, but this was officiating incompetence more than it was conspiracy. They missed a call on Briere, too.
Flyers coach John Stevens again yesterday implored the officials to give his superstars the same treatment that he believes the Penguins' are getting. Yes, he also said, "I think we have to play better, to be honest with you," but it's a dicey path he's taking here, especially after wearing the shirt with the slogan into a meeting with the press Thursday, after asserting his team had made it this far by playing through the calls and adversity.
Stevens should drop the talk about calls completely from here on out. If for no other reason than that his team takes its cue from him, runs its personality through his approach. That "Why Not Us" slogan was perfectly suited for his team up until now, up until injuries to his two best defensemen eroded the swagger the Flyers entered the series with.
That swagger -- The "Not" -- has to return tonight. It has to work through bad calls and bad bounces and through a Penguins team full of healthy bodies and bullish superstars or this series is done.
Said Stevens, "I think we need to play better than we played ... Sometimes you have to work harder for your breaks. Things happen in the hockey game you're not always going to agree with, but you have to deal with them."
Sam Donnellon writes for the Philadelphia Daily News.