Chris Pronger stood in the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon a dejected man, ice bags around his 36-year-old knees, trying to explain why the Philadelphia Flyers were in the midst of a four-game losing streak that has seen them play their most dreadful hockey of the season.
The Flyers had just been dismantled by the New York Rangers 7-0, in a beating that was so thorough, so convincing, it was tough to believe Pronger's team has been sitting atop the Eastern Conference since Jan. 8.
Pronger, being the leader that he is, offered a calm, measured response to the gathered media about the challenge that is facing the Flyers with 17 games remaining in the regular season.
"I think we're at the stage now where it's a test of our character," Pronger said. "Teams go through ups and downs. We haven't had too many extended or prolonged parts of the season like this. This is a test for us. It's probably good we check our character right now and see what we're made of.
"We're facing some adversity and we have to show our mettle here and understand it's going to take some hard work to get out of it and get everybody on the same page."
Flyers captain Mike Richards took the metaphor a step further, saying of his team: "Different chapters, maybe."
This four-game skid has been as surprising as it's been abominable. The Flyers have been outscored 19-6, with three of the losses coming against teams out of the playoffs when they played, and just about everyone has been at fault:
* The power play is 1-for-16. The penalty-killing unit has allowed four goals in 19 shorthanded situations.
Richards believes that some of the reason for this slump is their earlier success is breeding bad habits.
"When you go out there in a season and have a lot of success, sometimes you get away from the program and what the coach is harping on doing and you start letting things slide," Richards said.
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Despite going 2-5-1 in their past eight games, the Flyers still hold a two-point lead on the Boston Bruins for first in the East, and lead the Pittsburgh Penguins by two points in the Atlantic Division.
"We are still in a good position, but I don't think anyone in this locker room is happy with the way we're playing right now," Pronger said. "It's up to us to figure out a way to come together and get back to playing as a team and as groups of five out there. Some guys are on one page, other guys are on another page."
If facing teams that are fighting for their playoff lives is what's vexing the Flyers right now, the schedule isn't going to get any easier in March.
After a home game against the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday, the Flyers' next five games are against teams desperate to stay in the playoff chase in the East and West. It's a major role reversal from a season ago for the Flyers, who then were the ones fighting for a playoff spot.
The hunter has become the hunted, and right now the Flyers aren't handling the situation very well.
"The teams we're playing now are in the exact same position we were last year," Pronger said. "They're hungry, desperate and need wins desperately. We've got to understand that it's a chance for us to look at how we're playing right now. Obviously we're not happy with it. All these games coming up, they're all playoff-implication games that mean a tremendous amount.
"It's never a bad thing to go through different adversities like this to kind of test yourself and look at the character of the team. Every year it's going to be different. It doesn't matter if you have the same team or not, you got to go through the struggles and go through the ups and downs of the season. June is a long way off from right now. You forget what it took to get there. We've got to get that hunger and drive back for us to be successful."
The Flyers have had the flu bug going through their locker room during the past week. Carter has missed two games because of the flu, including Sunday's loss against the Rangers. Forwards Darroll Powe and Daniel Carcillo also have sat out games. But Boucher doesn't believe the Flyers can blame an illness for their poor play.
"We have had some guys who have been sick and that's unfortunate," Boucher said. "But to be honest with you, I think all teams have to deal with illness, injury. There's going to be times during the year when you have to fight that more than others. This is a time right now when we're fighting some illness, no question. We've got a deep group and we should dig in a little more when that's the case."
After Sunday's loss to the Rangers that Richards called a "beatdown and a half," all the Flyers can do is put the loss out of their minds as quickly as possible and get ready for the Oilers.
"We have to bounce back with a better effort," Richards said. "Just stick with the program. Don't try to do to do much out there. Don't start pointing fingers. Be confident in the group. We have to put this one behind us and have a good practice (Monday) and move on to Tuesday.
"We've done a good job of bouncing back all year. This one's a little longer, but we play well at home. We play with a lot more emotion at home. We're going to need it to right the ship."
We think that Randy is a very good coach. Our players think that Randy is a very good coach. We think that he's going to get the most out of this group. With the addition of the two assistants, a bit of a different dynamic, we're very comfortable that this is a quality coaching staff that's going to maximize the potential of this team.
— Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis on head coach Randy Carlyle and his staff