PHILADELPHIA — A host of Washington Capitals took their turns in front of Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Michal Neuvirth. He hadn’t been tested for most of the game, but in the third period, he turned his crease into a fort, denying one point-blank chance after another. With each save, the Wells Fargo Center crowd seemed to exhale applause.
With whistles mostly quiet Wednesday night, the Capitals could no longer lean on their potent power play. Without it, they struggled to score, falling to the Philadelphia Flyers, 2-1, in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
“There hasn’t been a lot of five-on-five in the first three games; we’ll just keep it at that for now,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “I knew it was going to be a five-on-five game today. I really felt that way. I thought they would have to stay out of the penalty box — and they did. It was basically a tie, and they won the special teams today.”
Shut out through two periods and trailing by two goals, Washington started to rally in the third, typically the team’s strongest period. A shot by Matt Niskanen rebounded off Neuvirth’s pads. With traffic in front of the net, T.J. Oshie backhanded the puck up and in to make it a 2-1 game with 17 minutes 22 seconds left. The Capitals couldn’t beat Neuvirth again.
“In playoff time, this is typically the way goals go in,” Oshie said. “You’re not always going to get five power-play goals in one night.”
A win would have given Washington its first sweep in a best-of-seven series in franchise history. The loss sends the series back to Verizon Center for Game 5 on Friday night and gives hope to a Flyers team that appeared to be in disarray two nights earlier.
On Monday night, Philadelphia couldn’t help itself with a whopping 53 penalty minutes, the fans so frustrated that they booed and showered the ice with debris. The Capitals took advantage with five power-play goals, a franchise playoff record, for a 6-1 win and a franchise-first 3-0 series lead. And as happy as Washington was with that rout, the team also knew it had largely rode the coattails of a man advantage that was only given opportunities because of undisciplined play by the opposition.
A desperate Philadelphia team played smarter Wednesday night, and at five-on-five, the Flyers were better than the Capitals. More than 13 minutes into the first period, Washington had just two shots on goal, barely testing Neuvirth, a former Capitals teammate who hadn’t played since the regular season finale but who was called upon to replace a struggling Steve Mason. Neuvirth made 31 saves.
“Probably the biggest adjustment tonight was that we only had to kill two power plays,” Flyers Coach Dave Hakstol said.
With defenseman Brooks Orpik out because of an upper-body injury suffered in Game 3, Taylor Chorney cracked the lineup, and 5:03 into the game, he was called for interference. The Flyers scored their first power-play goal of the series off a point shot by defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere with goalie Braden Holtby screened by Wayne Simmonds.
Trotz challenged that Simmonds had interfered with Holtby, but contact was minimal and the goal was upheld to give Philadelphia a 1-0 lead. The Flyers maintained the lead through the end of the period, marking the first time they had a lead at intermission in any game during the series.
Play was halted late in the first period after Flyers forward Scott Laughton was checked by Capitals defenseman John Carlson and landed hard on the boards against his back. Laughton was carried off the ice on a stretcher, and the Flyers later announced he would stay overnight at a nearby hospital for precautionary reasons.
“It’s tough to talk about,” Carlson said. “You never want to see that happen. It’s just one of those plays that you feel like you do a lot in a game, and it just never ends up like that. I feel for him, and I hope he’s fine. But I don’t know — I’m not going to let him walk to the net.”
Philadelphia built on the lead less than four minutes into the second period. Simmonds set up Andrew MacDonald for a one-timer from the point. The shot appeared to deflect off Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner, and Holtby was again screened. With that tally, the Flyers had already matched their offensive output for the first three games of the series.
Through 40 minutes, Washington struggled to get any offensive momentum. Of the 12 goals the Capitals had scored in the first three games, just four of them were at even strength. Their luck had also dried up; there were no fluky pucks finding the net after a center-ice deflection. A puck didn’t squirt off the stanchion and to the stick of a Washington player. Alex Ovechkin wasn’t able to fool everyone by hopping on the ice and using an official to shield him.
The power play was limited to just one full two-minute opportunity, and it recorded just two shots on goal, unable to bail the team out this time.
“I think on both sides, there could have been a couple more calls out there,” Oshie said. “But I thought the refs played it fair on both sides. When they let you play like that, you do what you can and play hard and play gritty. We can’t rely on special teams every night to win us games.”