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April 26, 2006 - Primeau's return now would be pointless

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Primeau's return now would be pointless

VOORHEES, N.J. — Ken Hitchcock kept saying all the right things about Keith Primeau on Tuesday, and the shame of it is, you didn't know whether to believe him. Primeau, the Flyers' captain, has been telling anyone with a notepad that he wants to play in this series against the Sabres, that his head is close enough to clearing after all his concussions, yet the Flyers' head coach seemed steadfast in saying no.

“My whole focus with Keith is Keith the person,” Hitchcock said. “That's the relationship we've had for two years now, and I'm not putting him in any place in harm's way. That's why he's not playing” in Game 3.

Except no one would be surprised if he did. That's the nature of the NHL playoffs; coaches fib about injuries all the time. Not two minutes before claiming Primeau was unavailable to help his team salvage some pride, if not the series, Hitchcock said the reason Buffalo had defeated the Flyers 3-2 in Game 1 and embarrassed them 8-2 on Monday night was that it drew on the emotion of playing in its home arena.

“Home ice is a big advantage in the playoffs,” he said. “That's why you fight for it all year. Buffalo took advantage of it. They really came out storming the beaches at the start.”

So, if those punishing early minutes caused this 0-2 deficit, wouldn't suiting up Primeau, the NHL's most dominant performer during its last postseason, shift the series' momentum back to the Flyers?

No. No. A thousand times, no.

Sorry to say, Keith Primeau provides nothing now but false hope.

No one can question Primeau's leadership, his desire to return. Surely, he can't help but remember his magnificent 2004 playoff, when he had nine goals and 16 points in 18 games and the “Superman” theme accompanied his every appearance on the Wachovia Center ice, and he wants the chance to repeat that performance. So he skates with his teammates and waits to see if his head spins again. But to debate this question with any seriousness, one has to think beyond the magic of his returning for Game 3 or 4.

Assume Primeau comes back tonight or Friday. After an initial jolt of energy that might carry the Flyers through the game's first few minutes, what then? The Sabres are still faster, still more skilled, still presenting the same problems. And once the emotion's gone, all the Flyers have added is a player who isn't in game shape, who will have no more success in keeping up with J.P. Dumont, Chris Drury and Tim Connolly than Derian Hatcher or Donald Brashear has.

“You always look for something to get you going,” defenseman Eric Desjardins said. “Again, how much that can carry you, how far that can take you, it's up to the guys to do something good with it. If somebody comes back, and you say, "Well, he's coming back. He must be fresh.' That's not how it is.”

Worse, what if a Sabre surges through center ice and cuts down Primeau with a shoulder to the jaw, as Brian Campbell did to R.J. Umberger in Game 1? Scott Stevens turned the Wachovia Center into a funeral parlor in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals, crunching Eric Lindros and leaving him curled up in the fetal position. The same thing could happen to Primeau, and with his recent medical history, he would go down, stay down and scare everyone to death.

Understand: There's no Willis Reed moment for Primeau to re-create here. This isn't Game 7 of the conference finals or the Stanley Cup Finals, where Primeau's mere presence might be enough to lift the Flyers to victory in one game. This is a first-round series the Flyers are losing and will lose because of their total team makeup, because their scoring is concentrated on one line and their defensemen are pachyderms compared to Buffalo's waves of swifter, smaller forwards.

How do the Flyers win this series? By rethinking 31 years of building around bigger, slower players — and of beating up opponents once they've beaten the Flyers on the scoreboard. By adapting to the new NHL. By looking ahead instead of looking back. They try to win this series next year, because they can't win it this year, with or without Primeau.

“He's a man trying to help our hockey club, and I admire that so much, what he's trying to do,” Hitchcock said. “But we have to make sure there's long-term health here, too.”

You hope Hitchcock sticks to those words, if only to save his captain from himself. For his hockey team's postseason can't be saved, by Superman or anyone else.