NEW YORK -- Are they a playoff contender? Or a pretender?
This is the week the Flyers get to answer that question about themselves with games against Pittsburgh, Boston and Tuesday’s opponent … the Rangers.
Their first attempt wasn’t very good.
A series of poorly executed line and defensive pair changes cost the Flyers dearly in a 4-2 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Peter Laviolette’s club hit the midway point again under .500 at 11-12-1, while the Rangers (24 points) also dropped the Flyers (23 points) from eighth to ninth in the Eastern Conference standings.
“Not good, we’re not good,” goalie Ilya Bryzgalov said when asked how he’d sum up the Flyers after 24 games.
“Obviously, we’re not where we want to be. And the farther it is gonna be is going to be more ugly. This is the reality.”
What has to get better?
“I can’t afford to say,” he replied. “We have coaches who are responsible for improvements.”
Rick Nash and Ryan Callahan did all the damage with two goals apiece.
Nash broke a 2-2 tie just 2:50 into the third period after the Flyers had a strong shift in the Rangers’ end with Henrik Lundqvist making a save on Jakub Voracek.
Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi caught the Flyers in a line change, outletting the puck quickly to Nash, who beat Bryzgalov stick side under his arm.
Nash put it away with another goal soon after off a bad defensive change involving Luke Schenn coming off too late.
“There’s been too many of them,” Laviolette fumed. “Too many discussions and too many topics about the line changes. It needs to be executed and it’s not.”
His players knew, too.
“Their third and fourth goals came off line changes,” Wayne Simmonds said. “Things like that can’t happen. You got to keep the game simple, maybe keep one guy out there. That was the difference.”
Bryzgalov also had problems trying to poke check Nash and Callahan on three goals coming right at him.
The game saw two injuries, as well. Flyers defenseman Nick Grossmann suffered a groin injury, sources said, in the opening period and did not return (see story).
Then, with 14:15 left to play, the Rangers lost defenseman Marc Staal. Kimmo Timonen’s slap shot off a faceoff was deflected upward by Voracek and hit Staal above the right eye.
Staal, who does not wear a visor, was bleeding, crumbled to the ice and rolled around in obvious pain, but actually got up on his own -- a good sign.
As has been the case, the Flyers started slowly, then rebounded for a strong first period only to lose the lead in the period’s final minute.
They came into play having killed off 15 power plays in a row (it was 17 but the NHL reduced it because of stat changes).
Timonen, who is second on the Flyers in minor penalties this season an unusually-high 13 (seventh in the NHL), picked up a holding call at 1:09 of the first period.
It took the Rangers all of 21 seconds to score with Derek Stepan feeding Callahan for the first of his two goals.
Six minutes later, the Flyers went on their first power play and it resulted in a beauty of a pass from Claude Giroux to Simmonds in the crease to tie it.
“Jake found the seam and passed it to G. I was lucky enough to be wide open back door and G put the puck right on my stick,” Simmonds said.
The game seemed to settle into physical play and forechecking until the final three minutes of the period when, again on the power play, Voracek beat Lundqvist on his own rebound, giving the Flyers a 2-1 lead they should have taken into intermission.
Voracek now has 17 points in nine games, as he also picked up an assist on Simmonds' goal.
“We made a couple mistakes and a player like Nash, when he is coming at you full speed, you have to stop him,” Voracek said of the game’s outcome.
The Flyers got a little sloppy with their passing in the final minute of the period. Brayden Schenn’s pass to Simmonds caromed off the boards to Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who dished to Callahan up the ice.
Callahan flew around Luke Schenn, then completely faked out Bryzgalov to tie it.
Bad way to end the period. Even worse, the second period was flat.
“Giving up that goal like that, that was tough late in the period in the first,” Laviolette said. “The second period was minimal chances both ways.
“You’ll never see 48 shots against the Rangers. It’s going to be hard fought. Tough to get your ice and that was the second period.”
Grossmann finished the first period but that was it.
Midway into the second period, Scott Hartnell had a glorious chance to break the tie, unexpectedly getting a puck in the high slot completely alone for a slapper that Lundqvist kicked out with his pad.
“Any time a team scores at the end of a period, it kills momentum a bit,” Giroux said. “We had the lead. It would have been huge for us.
“A couple mistakes in the third … we gotta find a way to win those third-period games.”