Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Michal Neuvirth was drafted 34th overall by the Capitals in 2006, but he was never able to make it as a full-time starting netminder in Washington. Over six seasons with the Capitals, he started 116 games, had a 59-41-13 record, .910 save percentage and 2.67 goals-against average. But he was traded away two seasons ago and hasn’t looked back.
In the time since leaving Washington, Neuvirth, 28, has started games for the Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders and, after signing a two-year deal in the off-season, the Flyers. And it’s in Philadelphia that Neuvirth is showing that maybe he had more to give than the Capitals, Sabres and Islanders ever believed. Through his past two games — two must-win contests to keep the Flyers alive — Neuvirth has been nothing short of sensational.
Neuvirth has stopped 75 of the 76 shots he’s faced in two games against the Capitals, and he had one of those jaw-dropping efforts Friday night where it looked like nothing short of a literal cannon blast would be able to get by him. Through one period, Neuvirth had seen and stopped 14 shots. He blocked another 16 in the second frame. And by the time the final buzzer went, Neuvirth turned aside 44 pucks in Philadelphia's 2-0 victory. He's the first goaltender since Craig Anderson in 2010 to make 44-plus saves in a playoff shutout.
What Neuvirth has done in Games 4 and 5 is enough to make one wonder where this series would have been had he started throughout the first-round tilt between the Flyers and Capitals. It’s hard to blame Philadelphia coach Dave Hakstol for not turning to Neuvirth when Steve Mason was the goaltender who helped the Flyers to the post-season, but Neuvirth has been a game-changer thus far and he’s earned every minute since taking over ahead of Game 4.
Of course, maybe Neuvirth’s play wouldn’t matter as much had the Flyers not made it of utmost importance that he turn in an otherworldly performance. Unfortunately, Philadelphia hasn’t shown they can shut down the Capitals offense. In fact, the Flyers’ attempts have been downright ugly, with none worse than Game 5. Washington outshot Philadelphia 44-11 on Friday night and the attempts ended 82-27 in favor of the Capitals. That’s as much on the team offensively as it is defensively, though.
When the Flyers needed the slightest push to give themselves an insurance goal, the offense floundered. There was only one solid possession during the entire third period and were it not for Chris VandeVelde’s empty-net goal with 31 seconds remaining, there likely would have been some incredibly frantic moments as time ticked slowly off the clock for the Flyers. The trio of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds has combined for a mere four points in the series, and eventually — be it in Game 6 or a possible Game 7 — Philadelphia is going to need to have their offensive stars show up if they want a chance to advance.
The one area where the Flyers should be again praised, though, is that after the debacle that was Game 3, Philadelphia has played their most disciplined hockey of the series. Washington had only three power plays all game and spent a total of 4:55 with the man advantage. Keeping the Capitals off the power play has paid dividends for Philadelphia, though you wouldn’t know it from the shot totals.
However, all of this is to say that the Flyers can’t have a repeat performance of Game 5 if they want to force this series to seven games. From Neuvirth, sure, but the rest of the team will need to give their netminder some support. Asking him to steal three consecutive games is asking too much. Washington has owned this series and Philadelphia was lucky on Friday to stay alive for another day. Eventually that luck is going to run out, and the Flyers roster will have to step up if they want to force a Game 7.