Can the Flyers Go the Distance?

And if they do, will the city be on the bandwagon with them?

If any of the four teams still skating in the NHL playoffs understands how important it is not to celebrate a game-one series victory, it’s the Flyers. When you win four in a row to overcome a 3-0 deficit in order to advance, you realize how tenuous early prosperity can be.

But anybody who watched the Flyers dismantle the smaller, softer Canadiens Sunday night ought to feel pretty darn good about the local’s fortunes in this series. What began with a stagger and fall into the post-season has become a strong and sturdy march to increased prosperity. The Flyers no longer look like the uncertain team that needed a miracle victory to reach the playoffs. They are confident and poised. Their swagger, born from an historic comeback, appears too much for Montreal. In Sunday’s 6-0 rout, the Flyers were tougher and even faster than the Habs, who seem to be chasing the ghosts of Broad Street, rather than looking for ways to overcome their more aggressive hosts. [SIGNUP]

For that, fans should be deliriously happy, even if the Flyers remain underdogs to win it all. It would be great if Philadelphia fans would just enjoy this ride, rather than holding out a Stanley Cup title as the only suitable outcome.

Declaring one team victorious after the first game of a seven-game series is ridiculous. The Canadiens rallied from a 3-1 deficit against Washington in the first round and came back twice against the Penguins after that. The Habs are extremely resilient and talented. So, that takes care of that.

What we can say with clarity and definition is that this is a much different Flyers team than the one that stumbled toward the conclusion of the regular season. Part of it is good health. Another big piece is the coaching of Peter Laviolette, who has recast the team into one that plays with more speed, while not sacrificing toughness.

And don’t discount the breaks Philadelphia has received during the playoffs in terms of seeding. Had the Capitals not choked away their big lead against Montreal in the first round, the Flyers would have faced Washington and Alexander Ovechkin, who has finally started scoring goals again now that he’s playing in the world championships. If the Penguins hadn’t fallen apart against the Canadiens, Philadelphia would have drawn Pittsburgh in the conference finals. So, after eliminating the heartless Devils in round one, the Flyers have encountered two teams that — like them — were fortunate to make the playoffs in the first place. The world doesn’t seem too imposing when that’s the case. Along with the health and speed and toughness, the Flyers have gotten some pretty good luck, too.

The question now is whether the Flyers can go the distance. There is little doubt they can reach the Cup finals, since Montreal appears unable to match the Flyers’ assertive style, has no answer for mammoth Chris Pronger in front of the Philadelphia net and seemed a little intimidated by their more aggressive opponent Sunday night. Even if the Habs do rebound and find their dignity, they don’t look tough enough to win this series.

Will it be enough for Philadelphia fans if a team that barely snuck into the post-season reaches the last round and doesn’t close the deal? That will be the acid test for the town’s fans. The 20,000 or so hard-core supporters will always be back and couldn’t stem their devotion to the team without a 12-step program. (Even that might not work.) The rest of the parade-happy populous is the problem. Since most of them follow hockey only casually and get stoked up only in the later rounds of the playoffs — and then mostly when a newspaper columnist from another city takes a shot or two at Philly fans, they might not appreciate what the Flyers will have accomplished if they reach the final round, even if they don’t close the deal.

This is an imperfect team that was one loss from the bread line last week. It still wins primarily by its grit and guts, although it is fun watching Briere send shotgun blasts past overmatched goalies from the circles. As well as Michael Leighton has played in his three-plus games of service and during his regular-season audition, there are questions about whether he’s a true number one goalie for the long haul. And for all of the magic of the Flyers’ comeback against the choking Bruins, Philadelphia was still one overtime goal away from elimination two Fridays ago. Any talk about a juggernaut is a little overdone.

The Flyers look great after routing the Canadiens Sunday night, but their odds against winning the Cup remain long, since they’ll face a high seed from the West, should they reach the finals. The last 10 days have been as magical a time for Philadelphia hockey as we have experienced in more than a decade, and fans should be thrilled. It’s likely to continue late into this month and even June, because the Habs appear overmatched and even a little afraid. But if the ultimate outcome isn’t a title, remember where the Flyers were in April — and even earlier this month — and enjoy the ride. This one is about the magic, not the zero-sum game. For once, Philadelphia fans need to understand that.

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• Hey, Versus, if you want to be considered a major network, don’t keep hockey fans waiting five minutes while you show some dude from the Isle of Man getting kissed for winning a cycling race. Please.

• Since the National League stinks (Cincinnati and San Diego lead divisions right now), it doesn’t matter that the Phillies need a closer. It might be a little important in the post-season, though.

• The Sixers’ coaching search continues, ad nauseam. Next up for an interview, the exhumed corpse of Dr. James Naismith