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April 12, 2006 - Sam Donnellon | These Flyers need Primeau

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Sam Donnellon | These Flyers need Primeau

More than conditioning or an ability to give and take hits, what stood out the other day when Keith Primeau practiced with the Flyers was his instant impact. He yapped. He chastised. He worked hard and made those around him work hard, too.

"He is that type of guy," Mike Knuble observed afterward, "who puts guys on edge a bit.

"Maybe that is something we need."

Watching last night's 4-3 victory over Pittsburgh, it's clear that there's no maybe about it. Rookie Jeff Carter might think that "there are a lot of leaders" in the Flyers' dressing room, as he said on Comcast SportsNet's "Daily News Live" last night, but the embarrassing truth is this team is rudderless.

Their lulls last too long, their cluelessness seems at times to be contagious.

On the nights Peter Forsberg is in the lineup, they often have enough engine power - or enough power-play chances - to play with the best in the conference. But when he is hurt, as has been so often the case this season, this team's effort is downright schizophrenic.

Last night, with a resolve that they were going to reverse a recent trend in poor home-ice performances, the Flyers methodically built a 3-0 lead over the Penguins, owner of the NHL's worst record. If you stayed only until Joni Pitkanen's slap-shot blast past Sebastien Caron at the 13:39 mark of the second period, you would have been left with the impression of mission accomplished.

At the time the Flyers held a 19-9 advantage in shots, had even bottled up the visitors' early power-play opportunities nicely - a must, we know, come playoff time.

But then the Flyers stopped skating. Not figuratively. Literally. They stood around in their own end and waited for someone else on their team to pick up the loose puck or take the abuse along the boards and just over a minute after seeming to be in total control, they looked like they were on fire.

Again, literally.

Derian Hatcher was tagged for a crosscheck, and the Penguins scored almost immediately on the power play. Their second goal came just after a power play expired, with one Flyer - Niko Dimitrakos, choosing to retrieve his stick behind the net while the Penguins held the puck in front of it.

From Pitkanen's goal to the 14:11 mark of the third period, the Flyers did not record a shot on goal. It was a stretch of 12 minutes, 10 seconds. At home. With a big lead, against the worst team in the league - a team that allowed its 300th and 301st goals of the season last night. A team that looked as dead as dead can be after Pitkanen's goal; a team, on your own ice, that was the closest thing to road kill you can find in the even-up world that makes up the Eastern Conference these days.

"We've been guilty of that all year," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "There's a time when you've got to put your foot on the throat. And we let it off. We've been guilty of that at home. We're not guilty of that on the road. We have success one way and then we change our tactics. We start to do a little too much and we turn the puck over and the next thing you know the puck is in your net."

By the time the Pens had pulled even on Sidney Crosby's steer-in of a cross-crease pass, the shots were dead even at 20 apiece.

It was a grueling stretch to watch, and it begged for the steadying hand, or the kind of banzai shift that Primeau so often provided during their near-miss season of 2 years ago.

There has been a lot of talk about injuries sabotaging this team, and no team has suffered more. But no team has introduced so much talent at once, either, from Carter and Mike Richards to the surprise guys like Freddy Meyer. Sure, Hitchcock has juggled and fretted, but what alarms you most is that repeated lack of urgency and the suggestion, made by the coach and some players, that it really is an offshoot of anxiety and pressure, and not indifference.

If so, then the loss of Primeau, way back in October, was the injury that will doom this team. Forsberg will be back tomorrow, the regular season ends next Tuesday, and the irony of last night's embarrassing win is that it put the Flyers within striking distance of the Rangers and first place in the division and a chance to play four games on home ice instead of three.

To a man, the Flyers insisted that is something they wanted. Simon Gagne pointed to 2 years ago, when an equally battered Flyers team took the eventual Stanley Cup champions to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals.

Of course they had a very recognizable leader in that quest. Maybe there's one in that room now, but he sure ain't leaving us many clues.