One stride, two strides, three strides, and Brian Elliott was alone in the middle of the Wells Fargo Center ice Wednesday night, Michal Neuvirth gliding past him, the far end of the Flyers’ bench still a long way away, a predictable shower of boos soaking him in sound.
Sure as the Flyers were going to exhume that grainy 43-year-old video of Kate Smith belting out “God Bless America” and rerun it before Game 4 against the Penguins, a soft goal or two was all it would take for Elliott to take a seat and Neuvirth to get his chance to prevent this series from becoming what it has become. This was a 5-0 rout that only reaffirmed the distance between these two teams, and this is a three-games-to-one lead for the Penguins, a full-fledged domination by the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions of an inferior opponent.
“We lost to a better team tonight,” Neuvirth said, committing the classic gaffe in sports and politics of speaking a plain truth.
It is important, then, to acknowledge and remember what this series is not and never was. It was never about the Flyers’ goaltending, and it was never going to come down to the Flyers’ goaltending. Yes, late in the first period, Elliott allowed that Phil Kessel wrist shot to push its way through his pads, like a caterpillar from an egg, and wobble across the goal line. A 2-0 Penguins lead. A deflating goal. And if he had managed to make a spectacular glove save on Kris Letang 8 minutes, 4 seconds into the second period, instead of watching the puck deflect off Andrew MacDonald and sail into the top of the net for Pittsburgh’s third goal, he certainly would have delayed coach Dave Hakstol’s decision to pull him.
But no goaltender who suited up for the Flyers this season — not Elliott, not Neuvirth, not Petr Mrazek, not Alex Lyon — was good enough to close the gap between them and the Penguins.
“That’s something you can’t really do anything about,” said Elliott, who faced 17 shots and made 14 saves. “It’s tough to come out of a game when you’re still feeling pretty good out there. But you understand trying to shake things up, trying to make a change to get everybody going.”
No amount of shaking would have helped. This Eastern Conference quarterfinal is not pitting two evenly matched teams against each other, no matter what the 2017-18 NHL regular-season standings might have said. Ahead of this series, no one was saying, All the Flyers need is for their goalie not to lose it for them, and no one should have been saying that. That was an appropriate caution in years past, when John Vanbiesbrouck and Roman Cechmanek came up small compared to Curtis Joseph or Dominik Hasek, but not now.
The question of whether Elliott or Neuvirth will start Game 5 on Friday will make for a handy story line over the next day or so, especially because Neuvirth was terrific in 2016 against the Washington Capitals in relief of Steve Mason. But even Neuvirth himself dumped cold water on the notion of his serving as the Flyers’ savior.
“It’s a totally different series,” he said. “Obviously, I had a great series against [Washington], but it’s two years from now. It’s a long time ago.”
The Penguins are a team capable of winning another championship, with the world’s best player in Sidney Crosby, with a perennial MVP candidate in Evgeni Malkin, with Kessel and Letang and loads of talented, capable players. The Flyers don’t have that depth. Their best players aren’t as good as the Penguins’, and Sean Couturier’s absence from Game 4, because of that bad-luck collision with Radko Gudas on Tuesday, only highlighted how top-heavy the Flyers’ forward lines are.
Valtteri Filppula, Matt Read, Jori Lehtera, Scott Laughton — these are not players who will be significant factors in the Flyers’ future. If the Penguins’ roster is a box full to the brim with precious cargo, the Flyers’ still has too much plastic-bag stuffing and too many Styrofoam peanuts.
That reality will not change overnight, and even if general manager Ron Hextall were to give in to any and all calls to get Carter Hart, hockey’s hottest goaltending prospect, up here next season, Hart’s presence alone still won’t accelerate the Flyers’ improvement. They need more skill and puck strength up front and on defense. They need their most inexperienced players to gain more experience, to mature, to become the centerpieces and leaders of the team.
Only time will make that happen, and if and when it does, there’s no way to know who the Flyers’ goaltender will be then. This much is certain: It won’t be Brian Elliott, and it won’t be Michal Neuvirth. Neither of them is the solution for the Flyers. It’s just that neither of them is really the problem, either.