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PHILADELPHIA – Michal Neuvirth weaved behind the media scrums inside the Philadelphia Flyers’ locker room, holding a Gatorade cup of water in one hand and a bottle of pink recovery drink in the other.
“Now?” the goaltender asked the team official who was escorting him to his interview location, atop a step-stool in the middle of the carpet. Not yet, Neuvirth was told, so he slugged the water, tossed the cup into a trashcan, plopped into a nearby stall and dropped his head in exhaustion. After winning his first Stanley Cup playoffs start since 2011, withstanding a nerve-wracking flurry in Wednesday night’s waning moments, who could blame him for seizing a quick moment of rest?
“He’s a world-class goaltender for a reason,” defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. "He's amazing."
Plenty of other things factored into the Flyers’ 2–1 win over the Washington Capitals at Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night, their first victory of these Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Among them: Gostisbehere whipped a missile past Braden Holtby in the first period, breaking Philadelphia’s power play drought in the series; fellow blueliner Andrew MacDonald, the veteran who had been waived and sent to the minors earlier this season, notched the eventual game-winner less then four minutes into the middle frame.
But no storyline received more attention leading up to Game 4 than Neuvirth’s entrance, a decision made on Tuesday by head coach Dave Hakstol. Given the 12 goals allowed by the Flyers in Games 1-3, replacing starter Steve Mason with the 28-year-old Neuvirth seemed inevitable. That Neuvirth responded with 24 saves—after making just three appearances in March and April, after lasting five years without starting in the playoffs, against the organization that drafted him in 2006—ensured Philadelphia’s season would not end in a sweep.
“Unbelievable,” forward Wayne Simmonds said. “He stole one there for us at the end. That’s what we need. Both goalies, you know Mason has been playing great for us all year long. It was up to us to get a couple goals for [Neuvirth]. We got a couple goals and he brought it home for us.”
Neuvirth had come to Philadelphia as a free agent, signing for two years and $3.25 million last July 1. Several other offers were on the table, Neuvirth said, but he deemed the Flyers “a perfect fit.” He could compete with Mason for ice time, always enjoyed visiting the city while playing in the minors with the Hershey Bears, and found comfort in defenseman Radko Gudas and forward Jakub Voracek, fellow Czechs who pitched him on coming aboard. Now, they host regular Czech dinners at the complex where Gudas and Neuvirth live, most recently earlier this week with Gudas’s father in town.
“If we wouldn’t be here, I don't think he would have any problems getting in the collective and talking with the boys and anything like this,” Voracek said earlier this season. “But obviously it’s nice to get away from the rink and talk a little Czech. That’s nice for sure.
“I was very happy [when Neuvirth signed], because I know what kind of goalie he is.”
Neuvirth burst from the gate in his fifth full NHL season, blanking Florida, Chicago and Winnipeg in his first seven starts. He finished the campaign with a .924 save percentage and 2.27 goals-against average, both career bests, but ran into injury problems, as he often has during his career, and was supplanted by a scorching Mason as the Flyers pushed toward the playoffs.
During that time, teammates say Neuvirth remained his usual relaxed self around the rink. His pregame rides with Gudas to Wells Fargo Center stayed light, nothing like the quiet focus Neuvirth showed before starts. He continued to needle shooters in practice, taunting them by showing pucks that he gloved or hollering at fellow Flyers for failing to put back rebounds.
“I probably get into it with him more than any guy on the team, because if he makes a save, he shows you up on it, he chirps you, he lets you know,” forward Ryan White said. “The biggest thing was, even when he wasn’t playing all year, he was giving it to you in practice, making sure you’re burying those rebounds, competing, out there ready to go. That’s what he did tonight: he just went out there and competed and he did well for us.”
Early against Washington, for whom he started nine playoff games in 2011, Neuvirth similarly found himself absent of regular work. Thirty-two seconds in, he kicked away a puck fired by forward T.J. Oshie, then went almost six straight minutes without seeing another shot on goal. Another Capitals’ shooting drought lasted nearly eight minutes in the first period, and among the 10 attempts that Washington mustered by intermission, only three came from within 25 feet.
“I felt a little rusty early in the game, but the guys did such a good job in front of me,” Neuvirth said after. “I was just finding my rhythm and I think from the second period, I started feeling really good. Just really happy with the effort tonight.”
"I thought he was confident and dialed-in throughout the game,” Hakstol said. “You can see it this morning, he was excited to have the opportunity to get in there. With Neuvy as he gets towards game time, he’s very relaxed. I thought he was dialed-in, seeing pucks. He looked like himself right from the opening part of this hockey game all the way through.”
As the periods progressed, the Flyers needed more and more of Neuvirth. In the second period, he smothered forward Evgeny Kuznetsov’s tap-in attempt at close range, then gobbled up Alex Ovechkin’s wrister on the power play. Oshie’s backhander broke the shutout early in the third period, the ninth power play goal scored by Washington in the series, but Neuvirth only tightened up down the stretch while the Capitals mounted their final push toward a four-game sweep.
A curl-and-drag wrister from Andre Burakovsky found Neuvirth’s chest. He kick-saved Tom Wilson’s attempt from seven feet and shooed away Mike Richards’s backhander. When he toppled backwards and smothered a puck after a long stretch of Capitals inside the Flyers’ zone, Wells Fargo Center erupted in applause.
“I think we were expecting they were going to push,” Neuvirth said. “We were ready for them. They didn’t surprise us with anything. That’s it.”
Hours before, across the Delaware River in Voorhees, N.J., Neuvirth sat at his locker stall following the Flyers’ skate. He sensed “a big opportunity” awaiting his team. He expressed confidence in his abilities to come in cold, promising, “I’m going to be ready.” He downplayed the connection with Washington, which still employed 14 former teammates from Neuvirth’s last season there. His answers were brief and clichéd, like his mind had already drifted somewhere else. Indeed, when Gudas entered the dressing room and tried disrupting the interview by hurling his glove at his goaltender, Neuvirth barely noticed. Even then, Neuvirth was focused, locked in, ready to ensure Philadelphia’s season would not end, at least not that night.