Flyers meeting expectations in home opener

A WIN SEEMED unlikely, but what would be acceptable?

With an 0-1-1 start, off an embarrassing loss, facing the same team, with the starting goalie absent . . . what could the Flyers present in their home opener that would keep the crowd, soured the past two seasons after slow starts, from calling for blood?

Staggered, the Flyers closed ranks and presented the best players they could muster.

Those players mustered their best.

They shut down the Panthers in a 1-0 thriller, and backups Michal Neuvirth and Sam Gagner played key roles. The team surged after an early penalty kill and remained composed throughout - a result of an early team meeting called by Claude Giroux after the Flyers' 7-1 loss Saturday at Florida.

"The one reason we had that meeting is because of our past. We get a couple of losses, and we get off-track and change our whole mindset," said Captain Claude. "The whole (point) was to get everybody to just relax and not hit the panic button right away."

Considering the turbulence they are dealing with, they were a remarkably placid group last night.

Neuvirth played in place of goalie Steve Mason, the team's best player from the previous season of failure, missed the game to tend to a family matter. Gagner replaced R.J. Umberger, one of the disappointments from the last season that got coach Craig Berube fired, missed the game with an upper body injury.

Vinny Lecavalier, another wasted roster spot last season, remained so through a third game this season; he did not dress again. Luke Schenn, whom the Flyers hoped would turn into a franchise, frontline defenseman when the Flyers traded James van Riemsdyk for him in 2012, was scratched, too. And, of course, defenseman Andrew MacDonald, for whom the Flyers traded in 2013 and who they extended at the end of that season, declined so sharply that he had been sent to the minors out of training camp.

That left the team without five cornerstone players.

Those five players comprise about $21 million of the Flyers' salary cap allowance. That's 30 percent. Nearly one-third of the possible value.

That's a lot of money, for nothing.

But it's what they had.

Adding to the toxic mess:

The Flyers got smoked Saturday mainly because of Mason's four-goal meltdown, but not solely because of him. The players, who had gutted out an overtime loss in the season opener in Tampa, held the meeting after that dismemberment.

"That's leadership," general manager Ron Hextall said.

This is the situation in which rookie coach Dave Hakstol found himself as the first college coach to jump straight to the NHL in 33 years. This was his first home game, too; against those same Florida Panthers.

With all the emotion of an FBI director, Hakstol emoted thus:

"Winning's what we're here for."

Wild man.

He must have been a little bit giddy. For a team that declared itself playoff worthy, with a front office that pledged the team would not begin a third season in a hole, it was as must-win as a third game can be . . . even depleted.

A game Hextall called "critical" at the morning skate . . . right after he announced that Mason and Umberger were out.

So, what's the first thing that happens?

Michael Raffl takes a high-sticking penalty 77 seconds into the game, leaving the Flyers shorthanded for 4 minutes.

They killed it brilliantly.

The Panthers sent three shots wide but the Flyers blocked two shots, Neuvirth stopped five shots; he finished with 31 saves. As the penalty expired, the crowd was theirs.

Just 40 seconds after the penalty kill, Gagner set up Brayden Schenn for a rebound goal, the first of the Wells Fargo Center portion of the season.

"The kill gave us a lot of momentum," said defenseman Mark Streit, who then bemoaned the team's lack of discipline. "But when you take penalties like that, and as many as we took, some guys get lots of minutes and some guys don't get many at all. You don't get into a rhythm."

You do get the fans on their feet, though.

With 57 seconds to play in the first period, Wayne Simmonds went berserk.

In a 10-second span, Simmonds crushed Dmitry Kulikov against the glass, peeled Alex Petrovic off the back of teammate Matt Read in front of the goal, then threw Connor Brickley onto the ice and trounced him. Simmonds, Brickley and Petrovic were sent off.

The faithful were frenzied.

Again and again they thrilled to Neuvirth's magic glove, which snatched Aaron Ekblad's snap shot with slightly less than 12 minutes to play in the first period, then snared Brandon Pirri's less than 2 minutes into the second.

The crowd remained subdued through much of the game's middle, especially as the Panthers carried the play in the third period.

Neuvirth's signature save came with a little more than six minutes to play. He stopped Petrovic's slap shot, which popped over his shoulder, where Pirri waited to stuff it home in the left corner.

He never got the chance.

Neuvirth twisted and dived toward the corner, onto his belly.

His glove shoved the puck aside just in time.

"I just reacted," Neuvirth said.

"He was awesome," Gagner said.

They all were, really.

They had to be.

"This is a good win for our team," Hakstol gushed.

Better than good.


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