Things got interesting toward the end, but the Flyers live to see another day.
Here are 10 observations from the Flyers' 2-1 win over the Washington Capitals in Game 4 on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center (see Instant Replay). The win forces a Game 5 between the clubs Friday night at the Verizon Center in D.C.:
1. Let's get this straight - what went down in the first three games was not all Steve Mason's fault. Yes, he let in two goals that he definitely wants back. But if you think it was all his fault, your thought process is shortsighted.
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That said, head coach Dave Hakstol didn't have much of a choice but to start but to start Michal Neuvirth in Game 4. With as desperate as Hakstol was to find a spark for his struggling team, nothing was off the table. And with a team needing a spark in the fashion the Flyers did, the starting goalie is usually the first on the chopping block. That's just the way it goes. It wasn't a decision based on Mason's overall performance.
2. To the fans' credit, they were loud from the outset despite the steep hill the Flyers have to climb in this series. And they erupted when Shayne Gostisbehere slapped home his first career playoff goal 5:51 into the first period with a hard shot from the point. Pretty nice 23rd birthday gift, huh?
And it was on the power play, no less, snapping an ugly 0-for-13 skid the Flyers were riding with the man advantage. What was the biggest difference about that power play? For the first time all series, the Flyers got in Braden Holtby's kitchen and made sure he couldn't see the puck.
Traffic in front of Holtby on the power play was so unheard of in this series Caps head coach Barry Trotz even challenged on the grounds of goalie interference, but there was nothing there. Holtby came out and initiated contact with Wayne Simmonds, who was just doing his job in his office. Good goal and good change of pace for the Flyers' power play. They got that power-play monkey off their backs and got an early injection of confidence.
3. The injury to Flyers forward Scott Laughton was unfortunate in so many different ways. It was a freak, high-speed accident. It was not a dirty play in any manner by Capitals defenseman John Carlson. The two players were chasing the puck behind the Washington net when Carlson hit Laughton from the side, not from behind. Laughton went careening into the boards at a terrible angle and hit his upper body on the low part of the boards.
I don't know if you guys have ever been up close to those boards, but they have no give at all. They're rock-solid and reinforced with steel. After laying prone on the ice for several minutes, Laughton's neck was stabilized in a brace and he was stretchered off the ice. Simmonds and Alex Ovechkin looked on worried and conversed nearby as Laughton was placed on the stretcher. Carlson stood over by the Caps' bench with his head down. Just an awful and scary situation for everyone involved. Laughton was taken to Jefferson Hospital and will stay there overnight for precautionary reasons, according to the Flyers.
4. There was traffic of a different kind in front of Holtby on Andrew MacDonald's goal at 3:51 of the second period that gave the Flyers a 2-0 lead. It deflected off the hip of Caps defenseman Karl Alzner, who was perched in a few feet ahead of Holtby, and into the net.
That goal was an example of the Flyers doing something they have done a very poor job of in the series overall - getting shots through from the point. Yes, this one hit a Capital, but so many Flyers' point shots have been blocked and sent back to sender almost immediately in this series before they had a chance to get to Holtby or hit something where they could change direction and wreak havoc on the Washington netminder. It proved the old adage true - you never know what's going to happen if you fire the puck near the net.
5. Numerous Flyers legends, including Simon Gagne, Chris Pronger, Dave Poulin and Kimmo Timonen, were in attendance and garnered hearty cheers from fans. Wayne Gretzky, who never played for the Flyers and tormented them in the in the 1985 and 1987 Stanley Cup Final while breaking the hearts of Flyers fans, received one of the loudest ovations of the evening from the Wells Fargo Center faithful, as he watched the contest with his wife from a suite. Well, he was pretty good at this whole hockey thing, so I guess he deserves it.
6. After getting the 2-0 lead in the second, the Flyers did real nice job of clamping down on the Capitals, something they haven't done much of all series. Earlier in this series, it seemed like any time the Flyers got any momentum, whether it be a goal or a high-energy shift or anything else, the Caps came right back on the next shift and took it right away. That didn't happen in the second after the Flyers scored. They were the ones who continued to control the tempo, which is necessary against these high-powered Caps, who have the ability to score at the snap of a finger. The Caps had nine shots in the period, but only Alex Ovechkin's wrister on a power play was a real tester. The Caps brought the heat in the third after T.J. Oshie's early goal, but the Flyers withstood with major help from Neuvirth (more on his performance Wednesday in a bit).
7. What's the best medicine for a Flyers' penalty kill that entered Wednesday night with eight power-play goals allowed in 17 shorthanded chances in this series? Easy answer - cutting down on the penalties taken. The Flyers took just two penalties in Game 4 and didn't take one until Sam Gagner went off for interference at 14:31 of the second period.
Both Caps power plays were killed soundly, though one was abbreviated. The Flyers can't afford to give the lethal Caps' power play many chances if they want to keep extending this series. They laid the blueprint on how to do that Wednesday.
8. Let's talk a bit about the Flyers' line changes. Brayden Schenn moved from second-line center to top-line wing alongside Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds. Jake Voracek slid down to second-line wing and Michael Raffl moved to second-line center. The move worked for the new-look top line the trio helped generate MacDonald's goal.
You know who looked like he had extra jump in this game? Schenn. He was so much more noticeable in this game. He brought the physicality, was all over the ice and posted an assist. He just looked so much more comfortable in the first-line wing role. Hakstol would be wise to keep him there. Raffl looked fine at center, too.
9. Making just his second start in a month, Neuvirth was sharp, confident and in control. No greater example of that then when he stoned Ovechkin on a wicked wrister from the faceoff circle, the "Great 8's" sweet spot, when the Caps were on the power play. Neuvirth came out of his crease to cut down the angle and calmly turned away the offering with a pad save.
He made another excellent save midway through the third period when he robbed Tom Wilson with the pad on a rebound opportunity. In all, Neuvirth made 31 saves on the evening. Hakstol has to start Neuvirth in Game 5 on Friday. Again, that's not a shot at Mason's overall performance in this series. Neuvirth just played too well Wednesday and earned another start.
10. The Caps did not play a bad game by any means Wednesday. They played a very good road game, but Neuvirth and the Flyers had the necessary answers on this night. Will the pressure on the Capitals increase heading into Friday night? Sure. A little increase is inevitable with any team that doesn't close out a series when it has the chance to do so. But when a team has the history of choking in the postseason like the Caps do, the heat gets kicked up a few notches.
But this Caps team is still way too good to choke this away, right? The first 10 minutes will be key come Friday night at the Verizon Center. Will they be tight or will they be the powerhouse we've seen in this series? Odds go to the latter, which would make the Flyers' task come Friday that much more difficult. But if the Flyers play the smart brand of hockey they did Wednesday, anything can happen.