COLUMBUS, Ohio – When the Flyers last won in this building, George W. Bush was president, Ken Hitchcock was the Flyers coach, Chris Therien was a player and Keith Primeau their captain — and silent Robert Esche their goaltender du jour.
That was way back in December 2005, and the only parallel to be drawn is that, like now, the Flyers were looking for a goalie to lean on. The Blue Jackets have such a person, of course, in Sergei Bobrovsky, once a home-grown Flyers prospect who was so frustrated with the team’s lack of faith in him that he threatened to return to Mother Russia if he was not dealt.
So they traded him. To the Blue Jackets. And for the last six seasons he has only added to the Flyers’ futility in Nationwide Arena, and against this team. He entered Friday night with a 6-0-0 record against his old team here, with a 1.29 goals-against average and .954 save percentage.
It was going to take a herculean effort for the Flyers to emerge with two points Friday night.
And that’s exactly what they got. From Michal Neuvirth’s playoff-worthy 35-save performance to a disciplined and diligent effort to clear the scraps in front of the net that that kind of performance requires, the Flyers won precisely the kind of game they have lost here. They rode Wayne Simmonds’ tip-in goal midway through the second period almost to the end of the game, rallying from another late gut-punch goal to win it in on Sean Couturier’s wrist shot at 1 minute, 52 seconds of overtime.
“You never want to give up a late goal like that,” said Couturier. “Especially two games in a row. But we refocused on what was next and we came back and battled to get that extra point. And that’s what matters.”
Here’s what also matters. The victory pushed the Flyers’ point total to 68, two behind second-place Pittsburgh with a game in hand. The Flyers, who will practice here tomorrow, will play the Rangers in New York at noon Sunday.
Couturier’s goal, produced by yet another dazzling turnover forced by Travis Konecny, answered Cam Atkinson’s game-tying backhander from a scrum at 16:32 of the third period, negating the 1-0 lead Simmonds had provided halfway through the second, a lead the Flyers worked tirelessly to protect.
This was not your typical no-chances close game.
“A tight, grinding game,” said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol. “But there were some great opportunities in both directions. Both teams made enough plays for it to be more than a 1-1 game.”
And that was just the first period. One minute Bobrovsky was sprawling to stop Jordan Weal swooping in alone. A few minutes later, Couturier was denied in close. Bobrovsky’s best save of that period was a filthy theft of Claude Giroux on a three-on-one midway through. Konecny’s mid-ice strip on the right triggered the jailbreak, and his saucer pass to Giroux from Bobrovsky’s left side to Giroux’s stick on the other side was on the tape. Giroux fired high, and somehow Bobrovsky got enough of his blocker, or stick, to deflect it over the net.
On the other end, Neuvirth did his share of sprawling too, and sometimes the Flyers sprawled right with him. They were credited with 19 blocked shots, the Blue Jackets 17, and there were countless missed nets as players on both sides sought desperately to find holes. Just under the seven-minute mark, Neuvirth stopped Artemi Panarin point-blank after an unlucky bounce put the puck on his stick. Later, Nick Foligno shot just wide of the net amid some of the aforementioned mayhem. With about four minutes left in the period, Lukas Sedlak couldn’t get enough on a two-on-one rebound, directing the puck to the side of a wide-open net.
Still, given that Columbus had averaged more than 50 shots in three straight games, holding the Blue Jackets to one goal and 36 shots in a game that went to overtime constitutes a great defensive effort.
“We’re more and more comfortable in these games,” said Hakstol. “We’ve won a lot of these games, and that’s a lot of credit to our guys staying with it. We give up a late goal off a shot block and it doesn’t rattle anything on our bench a bit. We just go right back on the next shift, and make the next play.”