Philadelphia Flyers

Michal Neuvirth gives the Flyers hope against Penguins

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Michal Neuvirth gives the Flyers hope against Penguins

VOORHEES, N.J. — And now comes the real test.

Watch the Flyers one night and they may look unbeatable. The next night they’ll come out flatter than Kyrie Irving’s view of Earth.  

The Flyers, maddeningly inconsistent at times — OK, most of the time — will need to build off of Friday’s Game 5 win to keep the series alive with a win in Sunday’s Game 6.

It’s now or never for these Flyers.

After steamrolling the Penguins in Game 2 in Pittsburgh, the Flyers returned to home ice with all the momentum in the world. And we all know what happened next. A 5-1 drubbing in Game 3, a loss seemingly dolled out before the horn sounded after the first period.

This time around, though, the orange and black will have a huge upgrade they were dearly missing in Games 3 and 4.

Goalie Michal Neuvirth. Yes, that’s right, the oft-injured Neuvirth is the Flyers’ best and only hope of forcing a Game 7. That’s not a hot take, either. Just check out the numbers.

Neuvirth’s playoff numbers are staggering. His .930 career playoff save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average rank third and fourth, respectively, among active goalies. 

“I just enjoy playing in the playoffs,” Neuvirth said of his ability to ramp up his play in the postseason. “Crowds been unreal in Pittsburgh and at home so it’s just so fun playing in the playoffs. I had success in the past, even in the AHL so I believe in myself that I can bring my A-game on the big stage.”

The fact is, Neuvirth — when healthy — is the only goalie on the Flyers’ roster capable of delivering that brick-wall, game-stealing performance for the team.

Playing his first full game since Feb. 16, Neuvirth stopped 30 of 32 shots in Game 5, including the ones that mattered most. 

The 30-year-old stoned the Pens’ blazing powerplay, as the penalty kill went a perfect 5 for 5. The Pens came into the game 5 for 19 with the man advantage, but the stability of Neuvirth, as well as the return of Sean Couturier, stifled the attack.

“We knew Neuvy was gonna come in and play big for us,” Shayne Gostisbehere said. “He’s a playoff goaltender.”

And he did just that in Game 5. With the extra attacker, Neuvirth robbed Sidney Crosby of a soul-crushing, game-tying goal in the waning seconds of the game to send the series back to Philly.

“He made some huge saves the end of the third period there to able to go across (robbing Crosby)," Giroux said after the 4-2 win. "When he plays cocky, he’s pretty good.”

Of course, that was all just one game. 

But with the Flyers facing elimination, one more game is all the team can ask for. 

Dave Hakstol's unconventional decisions do the trick for Flyers

Dave Hakstol's unconventional decisions do the trick for Flyers

PITTSBURGH — When Dave Hakstol decided to push a few buttons prior to Game 5, the initial reaction was the noise that rings out when a toddler sits down at a piano for the first time.

Valtteri Filppula centering Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek? Dale Weise back in the lineup for the first time in 23 days? Starting a goalie that many feared would pull up with a groin injury midway through the second period? And of course, the only defense pairing that’s remained intact is Brandon Manning with Radko Gudas. 

None of it sounded all that good, but desperate times apparently call for unconventional coaching decisions. Hakstol found a way to string a few notes on a sheet of music, and while he may not be considered the NHL’s Beethoven behind the bench, Friday's game at least left you tapping your foot to the beat.

And somehow it all came together.

Consider: How may teams can cycle through three different goaltenders and three different No. 1 centers five games into a playoff series against the two-time champions and still live to see another day?

Even Claude Giroux, the franchise’s No. 1 center for most of the past decade, was singing Filppula’s praises. 

“He’s a smart player and he’s in great position all the time,” Giroux said. “We did some nice plays. I think it’s probably the first time I’ve played with him. He’s easy to play with. It was fun.”

But ultimately the Flyers needed a showstopper in net. General manager Ron Hextall pointed that out Thursday before the team charter departed for Pittsburgh. 

Brian Elliott had been pulled in two of his four starts in this series, and while it was a mere footnote of a dreadful 5-0 shutout loss in Game 4, the decision to give Michal Neuvirth the nod over Petr Mrazek as Elliott’s backup could very well be the single biggest reason the Wells Fargo Center is hosting a Game 6 Sunday.

“We just felt Neuvy looked sharp in practice,” Hakstol said. “He went in the other night and got some game action. Just talking it through with Kim Dillabaugh, our goaltending coach, he was the right choice.”

Sidney Crosby would agree. The Penguins superstar had scored at will in this series, and the only time he had been denied on the doorstep was the result of some sort of stick malfunction in Game 2 that saw his shot miss the net completely.

But with 50 seconds remaining Neuvirth’s glove was better than Crosby’s stick. He not only saved the game but the Flyers' season as well.

“He made some huge saves the end of the third period there to able to go across (robbing Crosby)," Giroux said. "When he plays cocky, he’s pretty good.”

Neuvirth now has a 3-1 record with a .960 save percentage in five career postseason games with the Flyers.

Giroux also referred to the Flyers' Game 5 win as the team’s best overall game in this series.

Of course, this time of the season it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, it just has to be good enough that it doesn’t leave your ears bleeding.

Sean Couturier pulls a Chris Pronger as Flyers force Game 6 with Penguins

Sean Couturier pulls a Chris Pronger as Flyers force Game 6 with Penguins

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH — Whatever qualifies as the writing on the wall should probably be ignored when it comes to Flyers hockey.

A team that was humiliated and booed off home ice after it was outscored 10-1 in Games 3 and 4 had just about everything working against it during Friday night’s elimination game in Pittsburgh.

The eulogy had been drafted and all it needed was Sidney Crosby’s finishing touches in front of a sellout crowd of screaming, yellow towel-waving fans. The Penguins were ready to bury the bodies and move on to the next round.

“There’s a lot of commotions,” Sean Couturier said. “When s--- hits the fan and things start not going our way, you've got to kind of focus and stick together.”

Couturier was the catalyst in Friday’s 4-2 Game 5 victory (see observations). The Flyers' center knew not long after the morning skate, that regardless of his health, he was determined to play. Claude Giroux even conjured up the memory of an old teammate as additional incentive.

“I told him the story of (Chris) Pronger in Game 6 in Buffalo (2011), and he surprised us at 3:30 after our naps that he was going to be in,” Giroux said. “Before he went on the ice, I said, ‘You gonna pull a Prongs or what?’ And I told him the story and he texted me right after the morning skate and said, ‘I’m pulling a Prongs.’ So it was pretty funny.” 

Despite playing seven and a half minutes below his playoff average, Couturier gutted out nearly 17 minutes of ice time (nearly seven minutes on the penalty kill alone) and scored the game-winning goal with 1:15 remaining in regulation.

“Coots, what he did, he’s a warrior tonight and obviously our MVP,” Shayne Gostisbehere said. “Just him being out there, it’s huge for us. I think the penalty kill was phenomenal. I think they’re the real reason why he won that game.”

Valtteri Filppula’s shorthanded goal was arguably the turning point with the Penguins threatening to take a two-goal lead late in the second period. While one was left wondering about the Flyers' line combinations, head coach Dave Hakstol trusted Filppula enough to center the top line with Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

It was the 34-year-old center, not Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Giroux, who stepped up offensively in Game 5 with his most productive game as a Flyer, posting a goal and two assists.

“I don’t want to start ranking games and stuff like that, but Fil was good,” Hakstol said. “You've got to do that, especially at playoff time, when injuries are part of it. When your roll changes a little bit, you've got to step forward.”

And before the opening puck drop, it was Michal Neuvirth, not Brian Elliott, who led the team onto the ice. Neuvirth’s last start came in Colorado on March 28 and he hadn’t played a game in net from start to finish in over two months.

His glove save on Crosby inside the final minute sealed the Penguins' fate. 

“He looked great and looked really comfortable in there,” Couturier said. “He had to fight hard for a lot of pucks, and he made some big saves at the end and you can’t ask more from a goalie in the playoffs.”

The Flyers are now 60 minutes (and possibly more) away from forcing a winner-take-all Game 7. 

Two days ago, that was a scenario nobody could draw up.