Flyers, ailing Michal Neuvirth lose to Washington Capitals

Flyers Capitals Hockey
Flyers center Jori Lehtera (15), from Finland, controls the puck between Washington Capitals defensemen John Carlson (74) and Christian Djoos (29), from Sweden, during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, in Washington.

WASHINGTON — The goaltender said he started getting woozy as the second period began, a feeling Flyers fans shared a few minutes later. A hard-fought two-goal first-period lead had been erased by the Washington Capitals in the span of 47 seconds on their way to a 5-3 victory, and Michal Neuvirth was on his way to surrendering five goals inside of 20 shots for the second time in as many games.

“I felt good in the first,” said the Flyers goaltender, who was ultimately lifted in favor of Alex Lyon midway into the third period. “Sit down after 20 minutes and it was just getting tired every minute. I haven’t eaten much lately, so I was drinking a lot of water. I had one practice, today pregame skate … ”

Neuvirth is coming off of an illness, and usual starter Brian Elliott is on injured reserve with a lower-body injury.

“I felt energy in the first,” he said. “But after that, I was skating slower and slower and getting sloppier.”

Flyers coach Dave Hakstol doesn’t often get surprised after games, but he seemed genuinely surprised by the goaltender’s comments when relayed to him. He had just carefully avoided criticizing Neuvirth’s sloppy effort and later was asked if the goaltender should have told his coach about his condition before an ultimately winnable game got out of hand.

“I’m not going to make too many comments on that,” he said. “I’ll talk to Neuvy first. And that’s where it will stay.”

Neuvy, meanwhile, will likely stay on the bench tonight in New Jersey as Lyon, who got his first NHL action Wednesday, is likely to get his first NHL start. The Yale graduate made five saves in his eight-plus minutes of work, including a stop on Alex Ovechkin.

Neuvirth wasn’t the only problem Wednesday. In the early part of this uneven season, the Flyers were the team that hit the snooze button a few too many times. Starts of games were an issue, as the Flyers rarely emerged from the first period with a lead, but second periods were their savior. Lately, that formula has been reversed, and over their last two lopsided losses to members of the NHL elite, early momentum has given way to messy second periods in which they have allowed three goals. Including Wednesday’s  loss to Washington, the Flyers have allowed 16 second-period goals over their last 11 games. Four times over their last seven games, they have allowed two goals or more in the second period.

The Capitals erased the feel-good of Nolan Patrick’s two-point, plus-2  night, which included his fourth goal of the season. It came just 1:18 into the game and underlined the continued ascent of his game. Taking a left to right feed from Wayne Simmonds in the slot, Patrick deftly deked forehand to backhand, lifting the puck past all-star goaltender Braden Holtby, who was downright frozen by the move.

Clearly, two months ago, Patrick would not have owned the agility to make such a move. Or, as he quipped Wednesday night, “I would have shot it over the net.” The offseason surgery to both repair a new core muscle injury and clean up an existing one did not affect his speed as much as it did his strength and balance (he sure fell a lot). But the staples of his game lean – pun intended – on those attributes more than they do his speed.

Travis Konecny made it 2-0 at 7:50 by jamming in a puck after Caps goaltender Braden Holtby was crashed into by his own player as he tried to prevent Sean Couturier from herding the puck into the net. Konecny nearly had another goal a shift earlier when he broke in alone on Holtby, but the Caps’ goaltender – who faced 11 shots in that first period, deflected the try.

Two huge miscues in the first 3:01 of the second period erased all that good work. First, a harmless shot by Lars Eller along the goal line was badly misplayed by Neuvirth into Chandler Stephenson’s first goal at 2:14. Forty-seven seconds later, and soon after the Flyers fourth line, having success on the forecheck, got caught on the ice too long, resulting in  Stephenson’s breakaway goal to tie it at 2.

The Caps clearly smelled blood, and after Andrew MacDonald was sent off for slashing Alex Ovechkin, Andre Burakovsky tapped in a pass from the boards to give Washington a 3-2 lead at 14:32.

In the third, T.J. Oshie rifled one during a power play to push Washington’s lead to 4-2 – his first in 14 games. Fourth-liner Devante Smith-Pelly made it 5-2 before Jake Voracek redirected Ivan Provorov’s shot at 10:40 to provide some hope.