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January 19, 2015

Enjoy tonight, Flyers fans, it’s as close to the playoffs as you’ll get

Boo Crosby all you want, but when he leaves, so does the excitement

The Stanley Cup playoffs start Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center – and they will end as soon as Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins pack their equipment bags and jet out of Philadelphia.

It’s not official. But after getting thumped by a sloppy Islander team, 7-4, Monday in their last visit to the Nassau Coliseum, the Flyers head home miles away from a playoff spot.

And facing a rival like the Penguins at home is as close to playoff atmosphere as they are likely to get in 2015.

The Philadelphia crowd might be infuriated by Crosby, but in this season of doom, injury and rebuilding for the Flyers, Crosby and his mates will provide as much excitement as you can expect in the building. On top of that, when the ice is covered with hardwood, the other winter team is in an even longer rebuilding mode.

So, in Philadelphia this winter, you take your nights of adventure when you can – and at this point, the Penguins provide the best chance at real drama.

In the end, Hextall is going to have to decide if Berube and his staff will have to take the fall for a lineup that didn’t have much of a chance from the outset. More than anything else, the coach will be judged by the nightly effort.

For the Flyers, the season is barely half over -- the all-star game won’t be played until this weekend -- but there is no sign of a light at the end of the tunnel. If you peek into the future, you won’t see a playoff run in March, followed by a surprise April run.

There are no visions of 2010, when a last-gasp shootout victory over the New York Rangers and Brian Boucher’s goalie two-step launched the Flyers into the postseason. Instead, there are visions of Boucher as a TV analyst, trying to explain what went wrong this season, and what needs to be fixed.

The future is in the minor leagues and various amateur leagues where the Flyers prospects are being groomed, especially on defense. Presumably, the future includes names such as defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Haag, Sam Morin, and Travis Sanheim.

The future is whatever first-year general manager Ron Hextall can whip up at the trade deadline to quickly revamp and revitalize the franchise. It has been a long while since the Flyers have actually hit the reset button, but the time has come. And it is Hextall who will pick a direction.

The problem at this point is that there is still about half a season to go, and hockey fans demand a determined effort. More than just piling up points for all-stars Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek, the fans are entitled to an entertaining product.

There will be stinkers from time to time, mostly depending upon the variances of a brutal schedule. But for the most part, from top to bottom, the NHL has thrived because its fans pour into buildings at over 90 percent capacity; because each game has some meaning – even if it’s only to determine who is king of the hill for that one particular night.

Some of that intrigue has been drained out of the league because, as with in all other contact sports, some of the physical play has been tempered by a growing concern over head injuries. However, the sport is still best played on the very edge of mayhem, when those watching turn to each other and recognize they would never step into that battle -- no matter what the paycheck.

In Monday’s loss, the most energized sequence of the game occurred when the Flyers started to mount a late comeback, and the Islanders’ energy line led by Cal Clutterbuck relentlessly hit the Flyers – and the Flyers hit back.

Win or lose, given stretches of play of that variety, most fans will be willing to endure a rebuild effort.

In the overall, the Flyers’ defense is so overmatched right now the team won’t have much of a chance against the upper half of the NHL. On Monday, the Flyers were mauled by an Islander team that has finally managed to find a future, and it appears that any magic in 33-year old rookie goalie Rob Zepp has evaporated as teams have quickly figured out that when he goes down, it’s time to shoot high.

Zepp was removed from the game on Monday in favor of Ray Emery, who has struggled to keep pace with any team that moves a puck side to side. Thus, with injured starting goalie Steve Mason missing, and the defense in tatters, the Flyers head into sword fights with a butter knife.

In the meantime, supposedly speedy forward Matt Read is playing like he’s lost a wheel (presumably it’s a “lower body” injury somewhere between his toes and and his heel), and the defensive system applied by coach Craig Berube all falls apart when the team has to chase the game.

In the end, Hextall is going to have to decide if Berube and his staff will have to take the fall for a lineup that didn’t have much of a chance from the outset. More than anything else, the coach will be judged by nightly the effort.

More importantly, Hextall will have to see what he can get for players such as Braydon Coburn and Nicklas Grossmann when they return and, most likely, Mark Streit.

Those players and others might help a playoff team, but they sure won’t help the Flyers, who have missed defenseman Kimmo Timonen desperately since the start of the season. Ultimately, the loss of Timonen might give the Flyers some clarity into the direction they must move, and move quickly.

Without Timonen, it is far easier to see the Flyers problems on the blue line, and by next year at least one or two of the new kids on the block should be available to help make up for his absence – especially Gostisbehere.

This is not a Sixers super-long-term rebuild, but it is a different tactic for the orange and black, and it is easier to reengineer when the general manger is in his very first year of a program.

The Flyers find themselves in this unusual position, because their usual plan of attack failed to work when their money could not keep Shea Weber from re-upping with Nashville, or Ryan Suter and Zach Parise from heading home to Minnesota.

And for those who so wanted the Flyers to change “the culture” – well the culture change is here. There will not be a quick grasp for the ring, and they will not go out and buy the shiniest toy in the free agent market.

Instead, there is about a half a season to go during which time you can only hope the likes of Giroux and Voracek, along with the return of Mason can provide enough of a base to pump some energy into the building.

And, as usual, it all starts with the Penguins.