- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2016

PHILADELPHIA — It had been nearly five years since Michal Neuvirth had started a playoff game, and a lot has happened since. He had been traded twice. He had languished as a backup. He had been injured frequently.

Neuvirth, though, excelled on Wednesday, foiling his former team’s quest to earn a sweep in a best-of-seven series in franchise history. Earning the start for the first time since stabilizing the Washington Capitals‘ playoff run in 2011, he had 31 saves, helping the Philadelphia Flyers stave off elimination at home with a 2-1 victory.

The outcome means the Capitals, who had never even won the first three games of a best-of-seven series before doing so on Monday, will return home for Game 5 on Friday as they continue their quest to eliminate their opponents and move on to the next round of the postseason.

A top goaltending prospect who spent parts of six seasons with the Capitals yet never received an unfettered chance to settle into a starting position, Neuvirth joined the Flyers on a two-year deal after unsuccessful stints with the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders.

Steve Mason, who had been in goal for the Flyers‘ first three playoff games, allowed a combined 12 goals on 81 shots in forcing the change. Neuvirth had appeared in just one playoff game since his final appearance with the Capitals — an 11-minute stint in relief of a 5-1 loss to, of all teams, the Capitals in Game 5 of the first-round series with the Islanders last season.

The Capitals were upset afterward that they did not did not test Neuvirth enough — and they certainly not in the first two periods. They took 10 shots on goal in the first and nine in the second, then peppered Neuvirth with 13 shots on goal in the third period before breaking through on a goal by T.J. Oshie.

“I was just focusing on my game,” Neuvirth said. “I was enjoying the game and felt good. The guys did a great job in front of me. It’s a fun game. We talked about it and just have some fun. Enjoy the moment and we did. We battled for 60 minutes and got a big W out of it.”

Washington appeared relaxed and almost complacent, perhaps lulled by a placid atmosphere that would have better suited a game in mid-November. The energy was vastly different from that of Game 3 on Monday, which featured a combined 20 penalties and 67 penalty minutes; aggression was low, remaining that way even after Flyers left wing Scott Laughton had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher and transported to a local hospital after gliding hard into the end boards following a check by John Carlson late in the first period.

Shayne Gostisbehere scored a power-play goal 5:51 into the game, finally permeating a Capitals penalty kill that had contained each of the Flyers‘ previous 13 attempts in the series. Andrew MacDonald added the second goal at 3:51 of the second period, scoring on a shot from the left point after goaltender Braden Holtby lost the puck behind two of his teammates.

After a back-and-forth game that appeared to unravel because of careless passing and a general malaise, the Capitals made a concerted effort to put shots on net and create traffic in the third period.

Oshie’s goal, at 2:38, was the result of a rebound that was scooped in his direction by Nicklas Backstrom; Washington remained in the Flyers‘ zone for lengthy shifts later in the period, but was not able to muster another goal.

“We have to start better, manage the puck better and put some traffic in there,” the Capitals‘ Alex Ovechkin said. “You can see how we score the goal — it was two guys in front of the net, their guys, puck is bouncing and Osh found the puck and put it in. That’s how you have to play in the playoffs.”

Holtby, who finished with 23 saves, made the start despite leaving Tuesday’s practice early after colliding with a teammate. The Capitals recalled goaltender Dan Ellis from the Hershey Bears as a precaution, but coach Barry Trotz said that Holtby experienced no issues related to any potential injury and the team is not concerned about his availability moving forward.

Neuvirth answered a number of the Flyers‘ concerns, too — at least for a day. The team has recovered from a three-game deficit in a best-of-seven series before, accomplishing that feat by recovering to beat the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2010.

“It’s a big game for us,” Neuvirth said. “We live for another day and we are going to try our best to bring the series back to Philly.”

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