VOORHEES, N.J. -- Back in the early 1980s, when they were eliminated in the first round of three straight NHL playoffs, the joke went: What's orange, black and white and plays golf by the third week of April? The Philadelphia Flyers.

The Flyers then drained all the fun out of that one by finishing the 1984-85 and 1986-87 seasons in the first week of June because they were playing in the Stanley Cup finals. This season, however, they became the subject of more laughs -- and they were the punch line of the jokes.

Through 20 games, the Flyers -- the defending Wales Conference champion Flyers -- were 5-12-3. At the time, they had won consecutive games once, had never led in 12 games, were scoring fewer goals per game than any other NHL team, their power play was the league's worst and they had lost to the last-place teams in each of the league's four divisions.

But the Flyers did not panic.

"I'm not panicking," Coach Mike Keenan said at the time. "But I'm concerned. Very concerned."

"If we go on a roll, win four or five games in a row," goaltender Ron Hextall said, "suddenly we're right back in the thick of things."

Basically, that's precisely what has happened. Tonight, when they step on the ice at the Spectrum for a game against the New Jersey Devils, they will do so as winners of three straight games and four of their last five.

"I knew we would start winning eventually," left wing Murray Craven said after Philadelphia's 5-2 win Thursday night against the Hartford Whalers at the Spectrum.

If the 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs began today, the Flyers still would be one of the five teams not to qualify. But the playoffs don't begin until April, and the commonly held belief is that there is no way the Flyers, currently in fifth, won't end up among four playoff qualifiers from the six-team Patrick Division.

"I'm counting on it," defenseman Mark Howe said.

On the other hand, neither Howe nor any other Flyer as counting on the team getting off to its worst start since 1969-70.

"Before the season, you could have told anybody in the City of Philadelphia or anywhere that knows anything about hockey {that the Flyers would be in their current predicament}, they wouldn't have believed it," Howe said. "I'm under the same impression as everyone else."

Their goals-per-game average (3.2) still is the NHL's second worst, their power play conversion rate (14.8 percent) still is the league's worst, and to accumulate 100 standings points, they will have to play at a .718 pace for their final 55 games. "All Kinds of Reasons"

"This is probably the toughest part of a season I've ever been in in sports," said right wing Rick Tocchet, who at age 23 is in his fourth NHL season, all with Philadelphia. "I've never been in this type of a losing streak at the beginning of a year."

In Keenan's first three seasons, the Flyers compiled a combined 152-69-19 record. They finished first in the Patrick Division each season. They reached the Stanley Cup finals twice.

"There's all kinds of reasons why the team has gone into a tailspin," Keenan said. "These things happen as a result of a number of things, not just one thing -- particularly in our case this fall. We've had so many disruptions."

Strangely, most of the events that have led to the disruption of the Flyers' '87-88 season occurred last season or during the summer.

Event One, April 30: Right wing Tim Kerr's chronically injured left shoulder finally gave out in Game 6 of the Patrick Division finals.

Kerr, who scored 58 goals last season (his fourth straight 50-goal season), including 26 on the power play, has undergone five operations on the shoulder since July. The most recent of those procedures was on Nov. 6 and involved the removal of a surgical screw that had caused an infection.

So, in a season during which referees are cracking down on clutching and grabbing by calling more penalties, the Flyers, who have not had a 100-point scorer since 1975-76, are without their best player on the power play and may continue to be so until next season.

Event Two, May 24: Goaltender Ron Hextall slashed his stick at the backs of Edmonton Oiler Kent Nilsson's knees in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals.

Hextall later was suspended for the first eight games of this season. However, he rejects that as the reason for his 3.63 goals-against average.

"Maybe for the first couple of games, I could have been rusty, but that's no excuse. I haven't played well and I know it and everybody else knows it, so the suspension has nothing to do with the way my season's been going."

Hextall also rejects the so-called sophomore jinx, which has excellent precedent with NHL goaltenders. Grant Fuhr, Tom Barrasso, Don Beaupre, Mario Gosselin all followed rookie year success by spending parts of their second seasons in the minors.

Hextall offers no explanations of his own. "It's tough to explain what's happened to me personally."

Event Three, May 31: The Flyers finally completed their 1986-87 season, losing, 3-1, to the Oilers in Game 7 of the finals.

"We played 26 playoff games in 53 days last year," assistant coach E.J. McGuire said. "Just to look at the regular season as 80 games stretched out in front of us -- that's a long look if you're looking way ahead."

Event Four, Aug. 26: Free agent defenseman Brad McCrimmon was traded to the Calgary Flames for first- and third-round draft choices.

"Brad McCrimmon was an off-ice leader," Keenan said of the eight-year veteran. "He certainly added to the locker room becaue of his experience and his approach with the younger players. There's a void that has to be filled."

Event Five, Aug. 5-Sept. 15: The Canada Cup. Keenan coached Canada's championship team and Tocchet, Hextall, defenseman Doug Crossman and left wing Brian Propp played on it. Dave Poulin and Derrick Smith were late cuts.

"Six guys and the coach were not here throughout training camp," McGuire said. "And they came back after an incredible emotional high."

Event Six, Oct. 26: Dave Brown stick-attacked the New York Rangers' Tomas Sandstrom, earning a 15-game suspension.

In addition, there have been injuries that have slowed Howe (cracked vertebra, broken rib, strained wrist), Tocchet (sprained knee), center Peter Zezel (sprained ankle) and Craven (back spasms). Also, there have been whispers that Keenan's constant high-intensity approach with his players was backfiring; that once they slumped, there was no more cracking down left to be done.

"I don't know which is more significant or if all of them taken in a group is enough to even attribute in a small way to what's going on here," McGuire said.

And the pressure remains.

"It sure does matter what we do right now," Howe said. "We've proved that in the past because we've gone into the playoffs not playing well as a team and played terrible in the playoffs. We've also gone into the playoffs with confidence and won only because we went in with confidence and because of what we had done through the 80-game schedule."

Ah yes, the 80-game schedule -- of which 55 games remain.

"That is the most comforting aspect," Keenan said. "If you turn the whole thing around, it can be something that you really learn from. That's what we're trying to do right now."