The Flyers have emerged with a lead after the first period just twice over their last 21 games. Nothing inconsistent about that.
But they have also been beasts in the second period for most of the season as well, outscoring opponents by an 11-goal margin to either recover from early deficits or claim a game up for grabs, and Sunday was no exception.
Two goals within a span of four minutes erased a Buffalo lead and allowed the Flyers to beat a team that, despite is lowly place in the standings, has proven a tougher riddle for them than some of the NHL’s better squads. In the last game before a league-mandated four-day break, the Flyers defeated the Sabres 4-1 at the Wells Fargo Center for their third victory in a row. They got two more goals from Sean Couturier, a pivotal one from Shayne Gostisbehere, and some unexpectedly stellar goaltending from Michal Neuvirth, who was starting for the first time in more than a month.
Neuvirth made 30 saves, 12 of them a first period in which the Flyers once again came out flat. They were outshot, 12-5, and two of their leaders, Jake Voracek and Wayne Simmonds, committed two early stick penalties, something coach Dave Hakstol has repeatedly cited as a cause for their early-game troubles. Whether they were byproducts of dead legs — they defeated St. Louis here, 6-3, on Saturday — or indifferent ones, they once again served to deaden what began as a rowdy matinee crowd.
Making his first start since a lower-body injury sidelined him on Nov. 28, Neuvirth kept the game scoreless and was sharp when it was needed most, which means he was aware as well. Several saves — most notably a big glove stop on Sam Reinhart after a cross-slot pass during Buffalo’s second early power play – were impressive. Neuvirth’s A game also involves covering pucks and controlling rebounds, and at least twice during the Flyers’ giveaway first period he averted secondary chances with an aggressive cover and well-steered deflection.
“It’s a huge win for me,” said Neuvirth. “I haven’t been feeling good about myself lately. It’s frustrating when you get injured. I can’t help the teammates. I feel good about myself right now.”
By the time the second period ended, that shot disadvantage had been completely erased, as had Bufalo’s early second-period lead. Less than two minutes after Ryan O’Reilly had given the Sabres the lead with a power-play goal – alas, another stick penalty, this time by Andrew MacDonald – Shayne Gostisbehere got it back with the kind of defense-to-offense play that warms a coach’s heart.
“Ghost” didn’t just break up a mid-ice pass. He flicked the puck onto the stick of Jori Lehtera, playing in his second consecutive game. Lehtera pushed it to Scott Laughton, who teed up a snapshot for Gostisbehere, who was trailing the play with speed. “I am just trying to have a good stick,” said the Flyers defenseman. “Just eliminate time and space. I think that’s the biggest thing for myself. Don’t let forwards, obviously to have room to make plays. If I close that down it is going to be harder for them.”
When “Ghost” beat Buffalo goaltender Robin Lehner to his stick side at 3:42 of the second period, the switch finally went on. Couturier’s power-play goal less than four minutes later pushed the Flyers ahead, 2-1, and only some spectacular acrobatics by Lehner – most notably a cross-slot save on Simmonds – kept it there after two periods.
While the Flyers outshot the Sabres, 18-11, in that period, Buffalo had its chances, too, setting up a suspenseful third period. Continuing a trend begun during a West Coast swing in November, the Flyers protected their lead, icing it on Couturier’s empty-net goal at 18:45 and another empty-netter from Ivan Provorov at 19:27.
For all their inconsistencies, they enter the break with 46 points, on the cusp of a playoff spot. Two games against the Devils and one against the Rangers await them immediately after the break.
“We’ve scratched and clawed our way out of that hole a little bit,” said Hakstol. “But we still have a little ways to go and have a lot of work to do ahead of us.”