One positive in this disappointing season for the Flyers is that the team has stuck together.
When losses with professional teams accumulate like ice chips around the goal cage, players frequently snipe at each other and the coach. That hasn't happened with the Flyers, who clearly are playing better.
"Some other groups could have fallen apart and gone after one another in various ways," said Mike Knuble. "Our guys are showing up every day. The effort has been there and now we're getting some more results.
"There's never been a divide in the room. It's easy to point fingers (for blame). But we've all been guilty of things at times."
No one is happier about seeing the gloom lift than John Stevens. Thrust into the Flyers' head coaching position early in the season, Stevens has patiently steered the Flyers through the swamp. Finally, he is seeing some sunshine above the tree line.
Stevens and his staff worked to be certain that the young players would not get disillusioned.
"These are young players with the ability to make differences in games their whole life," Stevens said. "(Earlier) our team was struggling, but we just kept working through it and now we're starting to see signs of their ability to be real good young players. We're not just getting offense from Peter Forsberg (and his linemates); we're getting offense from all of our lines."
Assistant Coach Terry Murray focuses on the Flyers' defensemen. At times this season, injuries forced the Flyers into using too many young defensemen who should have been polishing their skills with the Phantoms.
"They're hungry to learn," Murray said. "They're high-character kids. They kept going (but) they wondered `Am I getting better?' The measuring stick is wins."
Both Murray and Mike Richards believe that enduring the hard times will strengthen the Flyers in the future.
"It's been frustrating," Richards, a second-year center, said. "But it builds character. If you go without any adversity, once you hit it and don't know how to deal with it, you're in trouble. It's been good to see our guys battle through it. It's a big positive for us to be playing so well now.
"It's all about chemistry. We've been together about a month and we're starting to get more chemistry in the dressing room. We're healthy and our lines are playing together. You just get more comfortable playing with the (same) players around you.
"Hockey is a funny thing. At the beginning of the year, we were struggling. Sometimes, you get a couple bounces and all of a sudden the confidence goes your way and you go on a few streaks. In December, if we were up a goal, guys would be squeezing their sticks because they didn't want to be the guy that hurt the team."
Following the NHL All-Star break, Stevens wisely advised the team to erase the league standings from their minds. He started a clean slate for the rest of the season, with emphasis on five-game segments.
"If you look at the big picture, it's an overwhelming thing to deal with," Stevens said. "In five-game segments, you can say, `Let's target some areas that can help us win hockey games.' We're trying to make strides to build something here and create an identity."
Back-to-back victories in Atlanta, home of the Southeast Division leading Thrashers, were impressive and give the Flyers something to build on. Jeff Carter scored a slick shorthanded goal in one Atlanta game. During the five-game stretch, Dmitry Afanasenkov collected his first two goals as a Flyer. And defenseman Alexandre Picard had a dream game, with five assists (a Flyers rookie record). That's the type of scoring depth Stevens mentioned.
"The five-game segments give us a fresh start," Carter said. "We have a good group of guys. Since the (All-Star) break we've played a lot better."
"We're starting to believe in each other," Stevens observed. "The (team) leadership group has a lot to do with that. They've led the way."
Murray agreed, saying, "There's a great core of veteran leadership. They've carried the message."
Carter and Richards are two talented young players that the Flyers are counting on. They were among several Flyers who missed significant time with injuries, leaving the lineup with too many players who should have been skating with the Phantoms. Even though the Flyers record isn't what was expected, the two forwards said they never dreaded coming to the rink.
"The atmosphere has been a little down sometimes," Richards said, "and rightfully so. But I have fun every time I come to the rink."
Said Carter: "Each day was a new day. We came ready to work."
Now, all that work is starting to pay off. While the Flyers may not qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they believe they'll have a say in who enjoys the postseason fun.
"We're concentrating on getting back to respectability," Knuble said. "Some team's fates will be determined by whether they beat us or not."
The Flyers sound like they'll enjoy the role of ruining the season for some opponents. Those rivals will face a more positive-thinking Flyers team. Confidence in sports is very fragile. Have it, and teams feel they can beat anyone. Lose it, and you feel vulnerable in every game.
"We're starting to build confidence as a team," Richards said. "Once you get confidence, instead of losing games maybe we might start winning."
That's music to the ears of Flyers fans.
Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.
Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers'' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.
He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.