There is a temptation, of course, to blame it all on fatigue.
How else to explain the fact that the Philadelphia Flyers generally start so well against the Ottawa Senators, but then fade as the game progresses?
The safe, easy answer is that the Flyers were extended to seven fierce games in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by the Toronto Maple Leafs and then advanced immediately to a second-series against the well-rested Ottawa Senators, who had calmly dismissed the New York Islanders in five not-so-demanding games.
Since starting their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semi-final last week, the pattern has been the same: Philadelphia scores first, plays better early, but the Senators find a way of weathering the storm until, gradually, the momentum shifts.
This ability to win even when they're not at their best may represent the most important step in the evolution of the Senators, who have been long on promise, but short on results in playoffs past.
Remember, in professional sport not every team is good every night. What separates championship teams from the perennial also-rans is the ability to gut out wins, even when they've left their A games in the locker room, which is something the Senators now do on a regular basis.
The Flyers, by contrast, are only 5-5 in the playoffs overall, even though they've held a territorial advantage -- or, at the very least, played a team even -- in just about every game since the playoffs began.
Conclusion: The Flyers, in their current incarnation, need to work for every thing they can get. The Senators, even when their concentration flags and they start slowly, can survive with occasional flashes of brilliance.
The players will always dismiss fatigue as a factor. In the psychological warfare that carries on off the ice, it doesn't bear admitting that you're tired or worn out, even if the evidence suggests that is the case.
After yesterday's optional practice, the Flyers' Simon Gagne acknowledged: "Yes, we start well and kind of go down in the second and third, but I don't think it's fatigue. It's just a question of playing 60 minutes. Right now, in three games, we've played about 40 minutes every game. The other night, we started hard. We had a great first period, the second was not too bad, but in the third, we were -- I don't know -- slowing down."
Justin Williams, a Flyers' winger, was even more blunt in his analysis. "This is what you work all year for," he said. "We've played a few more games than them, but so what? What you're working for, you shouldn't let fatigue be a factor at all."
It isn't helping the Flyers that they're playing without Eric Desjardins, their No. 1 defenceman. In the absence of Desjardins, who was averaging more than 27 minutes a game when he was injured, the Flyers have stepped up the ice time of Marcus Ragnarsson and Kim Johnsson, of Eric Weinrich and Dmitry Yushkevich. Dennis Seidenberg is in the lineup as Desjardins's nominal replacement, but is averaging less than 12 minutes a night as the sixth defenceman.
For a team that isn't deep on the blueline to begin with, Desjardins's absence puts a strain on the resources coach Ken Hitchcock has at his disposal.
Hitchcock put a little more credence in the fatigue theory than his players did, noting yesterday: "I really believe the mental part takes completely over from the physical side. If you look today, they didn't have anybody skate and we had very few players who played yesterday skate. You can tell it's taking its toll. Everything now is the game-day focus."
The Flyers have reinvented themselves under Hitchcock as a much more committed team. Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson was asked about the difference between this year's Flyers and last year's, whom Ottawa rolled over in the opening round. Alfredsson saw improvements everywhere: they are better defensively, they possess more firepower offensively and their depth is improved.
They are, in short, a working man's team involved in a working man's series.
Or as Hitchcock put it: "This series is way, way more physical than Toronto. Toronto was 40-foot runs at everybody and who can take each other's heads off. This is battling in close quarters, 1 on 1, big bodies banging into big bodies, fighting for space. There's absolutely no room on the ice, especially in both teams' D-zones."
They say hard work is its own reward, but the Flyers, at this stage of the series, would prefer to see something a little more tangible -- such as an easy win in the fourth game of the series tonight. Otherwise, the reward for all that work hard is going to be a friendly pat on the shoulder as they drift out of the playoff mix.