TORONTO – When it's all said and done, if the Flyers don't make the playoffs, they might look back on their 4-2 loss to the Maple Leafs as the game-changer.
This is the time of year when players raise their game, raise their intensity and show signs of desperation -- sooner, not later.
The Flyers didn't do enough of that Thursday night at Air Canada Centre against a hungrier Leafs squad that now has a four-point lead on them in the wild-card chase (see Instant Replay).
To make matters worse, the wild-card-leading Islanders topped the Canucks in OT late Thursday night, so the Isles now have a five-point cushion on the Flyers.
"We had glimpses of it (desperation) all game, but when something happens we responded pretty good and almost came back at the end," Shayne Gostisbehere said.
Gostisbehere nearly pulled the game out himself with goal late to make it 3-2 right after goalie Frederik Andersen had made two incredible stops on him and Claude Giroux.
"He made a great save there. We had a big play and he came up big for them," Gostisbehere said.
Andersen rose to the occasion while Michal Neuvirth did not.
After sitting four straight games, Neuvirth was beaten three times from the circle. Although he denied a strong Toronto push early in the third, he didn't deliver the way he has in the past.
"Yeah, the first one I was too deep and the third one I didn't see too much," Neuvirth admitted.
Flyers coach Dave Hakstol's decision to go with Neuvirth over Steve Mason, who had very poor lifetime numbers against the Leafs, backfired. Mason was on a 3-0-1 run with a 1.45 goals-against average and .954 save percentage.
Asked to evaluate Neuvirth, Hakstol paused for a second.
"It's that time of year when I thought we needed a save on the first one," Hakstol said of William Nylander's screaming wrister from the right circle on the power play that tied the game at 1-1 in the opening period.
"He made some real good saves throughout the game. It was a tough game, a hard-fought game."
The Flyers owned the game early, but Mike Babcock's Leafs owned it when it mattered most in the third period. They were the team showing desperation at the start, clutching a 2-1 lead.
"It was frustrating," Giroux said. "It wasn't our best game. ... We've got to be better."
In a chess game of matchups, Hakstol attempted to get Valtteri Filppula's line head to head against Auston Matthews in this one. The matchups were good. They didn't stop the Flyers from winning.
Filppula played a terrific game with an assist and nearly scored late on one of several Andersen scramble saves with the Flyers attacking with an extra skater.
Gostisbehere assisted on Wayne Simmonds' power-play goal early.
Gostisbehere's shot appeared to hit the underside of the crossbar and go in off Simmonds. But when the puck came out, Simmonds rapped it back inside on Andersen just to make sure.
"Ghost and G (Giroux) were playing with it up top and G made a good pass to Ghost. He shot it and I was able to tip it in," Simmonds said.
Either way, it was 1-0 at 6:09. Babcock said at the morning skate he was leery of the Flyers' power play and he had reason.
Then again, it didn't take Toronto long to tie it with its power-play goal via a wicked wrister from Nylander – his fifth point (three goals) in four games against the Flyers – from the right circle at 13:57.
Toronto's other power-play goal, off Mitch Marner's first shot of the night, late in the third was the shot Neuvirth said he never saw.
Truth is, the Flyers allowed the Leafs a bit too much ice in the middle during the second period and didn't have enough sustained offensive zone time.
"They kind of waited for turnovers and counter attack pretty good," Sean Couturier said. "We played right into their game plan and forced too many plays."
Added Giroux, "They're a young team, they're fast and they check well. It took us a while to wake up a bit. When we did, we were fine but we have to be better."
The second period hurt the Flyers.
"We need to keep skating," Filppula said. "We turned the puck over too much and we can't do that."
All it took for the Leafs to break the tie, however, was a series of mishaps, starting with Michael Del Zotto getting a gift rebound in the slot and putting it right back into Andersen.
As the play shifted down the ice, Couturier turned it over to Tyler Bozak in the offensive zone.
"The turnover, I thought I had more time and he was right on me," Couturier said. "You saw it, I saw it. Bad play. Whatever."
Bozak maneuvered in the circle on Neuvirth, then shot it over his shoulder at 9:28 for a 2-1 lead.
A bad goal all-around on a night when the Flyers could ill afford to have it happen.