As slam dunks go in hockey, the Flyers fourth and final regular-season meeting with the New Jersey Devils Tuesday sure shaped up as one. Yes, the news that Brian Elliott would be lost for six weeks after undergoing core muscle surgery was sobering, but with Michal Neuvirth turning in two stellar performances in his stead, much less so (it seemed) than the dark cloud surrounding the visitors, who, without their $6 million-a-year starter Cory Schneider, had lost four straight and eight of their last 11 as they tried out, often with disastrous consequence, two career backups in the net.
But there are, of course, no slam dunks in the ridiculously pared-down Metro, where second and eighth place were separated by seven points entering Tuesday's action and stars are made and unmade nightly. Tuesday night's game was an impure reflection of that, the Flyers surrendering advantages almost instantaneously, the Devils able to take advantage of the shakier Neuvirth version that has in the past launched losing streaks, the game entering that familiar world of overtime after the Devils Taylor Hall tied the game amid a scrum with the goaltender pulled at 18:39 of the third period.
In the end, the Devils won, 5-4, on Drew Stafford's shootout goal, the only one from either team in the session, pushing them to within two points of the third-place Flyers and snapping their modest four-game winning streak. In the end the Neuvirth that teammates issued proclamations of support after news of Elliott's surgery was made public instead stared blankly as he tried to explain how Hall's first-period goal, shot a la Patrick Kane from just above the goal line, found its way inside his pads and the net for New Jersey's first goal.
"Obviously that's the one I've got to have," Neuvirth said, but then added this:
"You see so many goals, pretty much every night, shots like that go in."
Begging this question:
What channel you watching, dude?
As his teammates and coach pointed out repeatedly, there were some big saves among Neuvirth's 32 stops. As they also pointed out, this was not a game he lost for them as much as it was one he didn't win for them, as he had in Vegas Sunday. After a solid start, the Flyers were sloppy and turnover prone, a byproduct it was suggested by all including the coach, of fatigue from playing five games over eight days, including back-to-back games in desert air and a two-hour time difference.
"I thought the start of the game was really good for us," Dave Hakstol said. "I thought we had energy. we were sharp mentally. There were just points and times in the game where fatigue sneaks in, both mentally and physically. There are challenges in every portion of the schedule and that was our challenge tonight."
Lessening it, or so it seemed, was New Jersey's own issues, starting with goaltending. Keith Kinkaid, who had surrendered six goals in his last start Saturday, got the nod over well-worn veteran Eddie Lack. The 28-year-old former Union College goalie, who has spent much of his career in the minors, was every bit as good as Neuvirth was, and on this night, more positionally sound. At one point Neuvirth, after making a save on the right side of his net, was sprawled like a luge-less luger on the other side, scrambling on all fours to return to the blue paint as the puck was retrieved in the opposite corner.
That's the version that taints any profession of faith issued by teammates, coaches and management. The version that twice needed to make big saves when the Flyers grabbed two goal leads, that needed to come up big in those final two minutes of regulation. "Got all the confidence in the world in Neuvy," insisted Hakstol, who nonetheless played Elliott almost exclusively in November, even when Neuvirth was healthy.
That's the version that threatens to derail what has become one of the Eastern Conference's most consistent, and thus dangerous teams.
The Flyers are 12-5-2 since the start of the new year, and 20-8-3 in the 30 games since their now notorious 10-game winless streak threatened to sink and disband them. Even with the shootout loss, they are one of the teams to be chased, sitting just four points out of first in the Metro.
"Neuvy made some big saves for us and then they were able to get a loose puck," said Giroux. "It's frustrating, but at the same time we've got to know that we played a pretty solid game. We just got to keep going from here."