WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Thin Lizzy thumped through the speakers inside the visiting dressing room at Verizon Center—"Spread the word around! Guess who’s back in town!"—Flyers forward Chris VandeVelde searched for evidence of the miracle that happened here on Friday night.
“Game sheet?” he asked, addressing no one in particular. “Game sheet?”
Consider the statistical anomalies that VandeVelde eventually found: The Capitals pounded 44 shots on goal, 19 pucks that missed and 19 more attempts that struck bodies en route toward the net. The Flyers, meanwhile, registered 11 shots on goal, the lowest total in their franchise history, including a measly two each in the second and third periods, and were outshot at even strength by 30, discounting VandeVelde’s clinching empty netter with 31 seconds left.
Sustainable long-term? No way. Enough to keep the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed afloat heading into Sunday’s Game 6 at Wells Fargo Center, with the chance to force a winner-take-all Game 7? Evidently so. At this stage, one defeat away from summer, the Flyers were perfectly content looking only at two numbers atop of the printed page: the baffling final score, 2–0.
“I’ll take it this way,” forward Jakub Voracek said. “I’d rather have five shots and win the game than have f---ing 40 shots and lose.”
Before Voracek spoke, the man responsible for steering Philadelphia down this unusual path pedaled on an exercise bicycle nearby. Two days prior, Michal Neuvirth had backstopped the Flyers to their first win of the first round, growing stronger as Game 4 progressed. And now, 44 saves later in the building he once called home, Washington’s former second-round pick again stymied his former team in perhaps Philadelphia’s greatest postseason goaltending performance ever, again prolonging these conference quarterfinals and wrenching stomachs across the District.
“He played unbelievable,” forward Wayne Simmonds said of Neuvirth. “He was great. He’s the reason we won that game. He saves our butt sometimes and we save his butt sometimes. He definitely saved ours today. Neuvy stole one for us, that’s for sure. We know that. We’re going to have to play a lot better at home on Sunday and we will. We’ve just got to get to the win. That’s all.”
Down the hallway, the Capitals set about processing their second straight regulation loss, which had not happened the entire regular season. What more could they have done than batter Neuvirth with 14 pucks in the first period, 16 in the second, and 14 in the third? How could they scrap harder than by dishing out 35 hits, including eight from captain Alex Ovechkin and six from battering ram Tom Wilson? Their penalty kill remained strong, going 6 for 6, and they never allowed more than six shots in any frame.
All that in a losing effort, decided when Ryan White’s winning shot banked off Washington defenseman Taylor Chorney’s skate at the goalmouth?
“I always talk about the hockey gods,” coach Barry Trotz said. “People think I’m crazy, but in Game 4 I didn’t think we played hard enough in that. We played really hard in the third period and we came up a little bit short. They sometimes make you earn it a little bit.
“What we’re learning is we’ve got a resilient team on the other side. They’re getting good goaltending, they’re committed, they’re blocking shots, they’re doing all the things they’re trying to do. They came in here, got a goal. Doesn’t matter how they get it, but they got one, and we didn’t get any. There’s only one stat that matters at the end of the night.”
When Neuvirth hopped off the bike and stood before the cameras, he spoke with little emotion, far less than his teammates showed when they celebrated VandeVelde’s empty-netter with hugs on the bench. Asked if the second period, when Washington attempted eight shots on goal over the final 3:30, had left him tired, Neuvirth replied, “No, I wasn’t tired. Nope.” Asked if he was tired now, he said, “Uh, no.” Asked if he sensed frustration in the Capitals, Neuvirth offered, “I was just focused on myself. Just tried to go save by save. Like I said, I was feeling good the whole night.”
With 75 saves on 76 shots after replacing Steve Mason before Game 4, Neuvirth gave little reason to argue otherwise. As he talked, the bags were being packed, the equipment carts loaded up, not for the off-season but for Game 6, no matter how bumpy the road there. The Flyers had already scrapped into the postseason. They know the feeling of hanging on for dear life.
“The pressure’s there,” defenseman Radko Gudas said. “We knew we needed to win the last 14 games out of 18 to make the playoffs. It’s mental toughness the last month playing like that. We went through this during the season, and I think it makes us a better team right now. Anything can happen the next game, but I think we’re mentally ready.”