WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Washington Capitals became the first team since the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens to last an entire regular season without suffering consecutive regulation losses, a remarkable run that was critical to winning the Presidents’ Trophy. The Caps had shown resilience under such adversity, posting a 16-0-2 record in those situations, bouncing back at the earliest possible moment.
Friday night at the Verizon Center, however, the Capitals bolted into a brick wall—and familiar face—named Michal Neuvirth, the former Washington goalie. Thanks to Neuvirth’s 44 saves, the Flyers stole Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals with a 2–0 decision capped off by Chris Vandevelde’s empty-netter with 30.8 seconds left that set off a raucous, hug-filled celebration on the visiting bench. Washington still leads the series, 3–2, but will visit Philadelphia on Sunday with a possible Game 7 at stake and likely a major case of jitters.
While nails get chewed and stomachs churn in the District, here are three thoughts on tonight's game:
Neuvirth stands tall
Back inside the building he called home for six years, Michal Neuvirth single-handedly kept his underdog team afloat. By the second intermission, the Capitals held a whopping 30–8 lead in shots on goal, pinning Philadelphia for long segments inside its own zone. But the 2006 second-round draft pick turned away everything sent his way by his former club. One-timers from defenseman John Carlson. Wristers from sniper Alex Ovechkin. Spin-around attempts from Marcus Johansson and Jay Beagle. A wraparound from defenseman Taylor Chorney. Nothing snuck past Neuvirth during the Capitals’ barrage of 14 shots in the first period, then 16 in the second.
Not that Neuvirth’s lockdown effort came as much surprise. Even while running into injury problems midway through this season, his first of a two-year deal with the Flyers, he posted career bests in save percentage (.924) and goals-against average (2.27), including three shutouts by Nov. 7. He only strengthened his play as Wednesday night’s Game 4 progressed at Wells Fargo Center, stoning the Capitals down the stretch, and he needed to be perfect in his follow-up act. Philadelphia labored to two shots on goal in the entire second period, one of which was Ryan White’s game-winning goal that kicked in off Chorney’s skate.
The Capitals were wrecking balls throughout the game, dominating possession while dishing out 35 hits, including eight by their captain, Ovechkin, who pelted eight shots on Neuvirth and fired five more attempts that either missed or were blocked. But Washington's early progress was also stunted by six minor penalties that turned into Philadelphia power plays. The Caps' penalty kill remained strong, squelching all six sequences and running its success rate in the series to 95.2%.
On the other side, Philadelphia silenced Washington’s power play on three tries, none bigger than when White stepped into the box for interference midway through the third period. Over the next two minutes, the Capitals missed two shots and reached Neuvirth once—on an Ovechkin slapper from 57 feet away. After notching eight goals on the man advantage in Games 1-3, the Capitals have now gone scoreless in the past two.
Vengeance found fast
In the 10 seconds after the opening puck dropped, forwards Brayden Schenn and T.J. Oshie circled through the neutral zone, eyeing each other before shedding their gloves and coming to blows. The flurry of fists served as retribution for Schenn’s post-whistle crosscheck to the knees of Washington center Evgeny Kuznetsov in Game 4, which over the past two days produced an apology from Schenn and much irritation on the part of the Capitals.
“Yeah there’s really no way to put it—that’s pretty cheap,” forward Tom Wilson said on Thursday. “That’s a pretty dangerous play. We’ll just use that as a little motivation to send those guys home.”
But first, Oshie sought out Schenn to spar near center ice. That Schenn agreed—on the first shift, no less—signaled a willingness to answer for the crime of chopping Kuznetsov. It was only Oshie’s fourth non-preseason fight of his NHL career, as many as Schenn has now logged in 2015–16 alone. Verizon Center erupted in applause and both benches banged their sticks as each skater headed for his respective penalty box, shelved for the next five minutes. With 19:50 left in the first period, Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals could unofficially begin.