In their biggest game of the season, Flyers coach Dave Hakstol rolled the dice and used a goalie, Brian Elliott, who hadn’t played in nearly two months because of an injury.
The decision didn’t exactly work, but the Flyers bailed out their shaky goalie Thursday night at the electric Wells Fargo Center.
Jake Voracek scored from the right circle with 5 minutes, 45 seconds left to lift the Flyers to a crucial 4-3 win over Carolina. With one game left in the regular season — at home Saturday afternoon against the Rangers — the Flyers reduced their magic number to one point to clinch a playoff berth.
“We’re still in control for making the playoffs, and that’s what we wanted to do,” Sean Couturier said after collecting two assists in the clutch win. “… Before the season starts, if you tell us you have one game to win to make the playoffs, I think anyone would take it.”
It was Voracek’s 20th goal and it took the sting out of a bad goal allowed by Elliott that enabled Carolina’s Jordan Staal to tie the score from an almost impossible angle just 34 seconds earlier.
“But we responded well and Jake came down and ripped it,” said Elliott, who will probably get the nod Saturday. “I knew the next shot coming, I wasn’t letting in.”
Petr Mrazek’s struggles probably played a role in the Flyers’ decision to play Elliott, who said he was ready.
“It’s kind of jump in or don’t,” Elliott said. “This is what you play all year long for, and I worked really hard and rehabbed to try to get back. I wanted to throw my cap in the game, and luckily the guys pulled it out in the end for me.”
Elliott made perhaps his best save of the night with 5:10 left, stopping Hayden Fleury on a tip-in attempt in front.
Three-plus minutes before Elliott allowed the ugly goal to Staal, Claude Giroux took a drop pass from Couturier and scored from the high slot with 9:42 left, ripping a shot into the right corner to snap a 2-2 tie.
The Flyers tied the score at 2-2 thanks to relentless work by defenseman Ivan Provorov and the patience of Couturier.
From deep in the right corner, Couturier waited for the charging Provorov to get in position before whipping a pass out front, and the second-year defenseman scored on his own rebound to tie the game at 2-all with 5:04 left in the second. It was Provorov’s 16th goal – 10 more than he scored in his rookie season – and third in five games.
About six minutes before Provorov’s goal, the Hurricanes nearly took a 3-1 lead, but Sebastian Aho missed a golden chance after a turnover by Andrew MacDonald in front.
The Flyers had a 28-13 shots domination in the first 40 minutes, and Carolina goalie Scott Darling – who took just a 3.15 goals-against average and .888 save percentage into the game – was the main reason the Hurricanes weren’t behind.
In the opening period, Darling’s counterpart, Elliott, looked rusty in his first game since Feb. 10.
That was the risk Hakstol took when he decided Elliott, who had been rehabbing after core-muscle surgery, was ready to play in such a critical game.
Despite a 15-7 shots advantage, the Flyers faced a 2-1 deficit after the first period.
Defenseman Klas Dahlbeck scored his first goal of the season, a wrist shot from the high slot that deflected off Travis Sanheim and beat Elliott to the glove side, giving the Hurricanes a 1-0 lead with 6:15 left in the first. Twenty-six seconds later, Elliott denied Brock McGinn on a breakaway.
“It was almost like opening-night jitters again,” Elliott said about his first game in nearly two months. “But after the first period I felt like I kind of settled in a little bit. It’s always hard to come back because it’s always hard to replicate a game in practice.”
The Flyers then squandered a two-on-one, but Michael Raffl picked up the loose puck and scored from out front, to tie the game at 1-1 with 5:22 left in the first.
“I drove the net and stopped there,” said Raffl, who played on the top line while Travis Konecny dropped down to the third unit. “That’s where the puck is going to end up and I was lucky enough to put one home.”
Just 14 seconds later, however, Carolina took a 2-1 lead when Aho, from behind the goal line, whipped a shot off the back of Elliott and into the net.
But the Flyers, showing the resiliency they’ve displayed all season, recovered.