The Flyers started their fourth different goaltender of the season Thursday night. Petr Mrazek didn't have much to do in the early stages of his debut, facing only two shots in the first 20 minutes, but boy did that change in a 14-shot second. In what was undoubtedly their worst period since coughing up two two-goal leads here against New Jersey 10 days ago, the Flyers flubbed golden chances, surrendered ugly odd-man rushes, and still managed to pull out a 2-1 victory over Columbus – thanks largely to their newest goaltender.
"It's awesome,'' said Mrazek, who wore the WOOO robe after stopping 19 of 20 shots. "I was really excited for this game. The day was so long for me. I felt like we were playing at midnight, not at 7.''
You want an omen? The last time the Flyers started four goaltenders in a season was 2009-2010, when Ray Emery, signed to be their iron man between the pipes, was gone by early December and the following netminders took turns getting injured or playing themselves out of the job: Emery, Brian Boucher, Michael Leighton, Johan Backlund, and Jeremy Duchesne. The last two were emergency men called to back up over the final two weeks of the season. For each, it was his only NHL action.
These Flyers are in consummately better shape than that after acquiring Mrazek from Detroit on Monday. Behind him is Alex Lyon, who won two consecutive games last weekend while general manager Ron Hextall worked the phones, and behind Lyon is Dustin Tokarski, who once backed up Carey Price and played well in replacing him for one playoff series and who has played well with Lehigh Valley this season.
But that Cup Finals team had something this team does not. Experience. Gut-checking experience. "We're still young,'' said Couturier, who joined the Flyers two seasons after that run. "We're still developing, trying to get better. Down the road we'll be dangerous and people will be scared of us. But right now the goal is just to make the playoffs and give ourselves a chance to go all the way.''
They're doing more than that. In beating Columbus, they further separated themselves from the wild-card world that at one time was their ultimate goal. Within one point of the division lead, " We're looking ahead of us now,'' Jake Voracek said. "We have to.''
Why not? The narrative of this team has changed so dramatically over the last two months. The winning goal last night at 9 minutes, 49 seconds of the third period was scored by Nolan Patrick who, like the team he played for, couldn't get out of his own way during the first two months. He was playing down low in place of Wayne Simmonds, out with a lower-body injury, and the Flyers were also without their other most improved forward, Travis Konecny, who took a puck off his foot in Monday's win.
Patrick, Konecny — this team has found things as it has gone along. They Flyers have extracted enough offense from their depth guys, too – Scott Laughton, Michael Raffl, and Valtteri Filppula have 10 goals each.
Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov have provided a dynamic first defensive pairing as good as you can find in their division – even on a night when Provorov nearly gave this game away with a breakaway turnover, the only puck to get past Mrazek.
Artemi Panarin's goal, at 12:51 of the second, gave the Blue Jackets a 1-0 lead. But Claude Giroux, who had destroyed a perfectly fine piece of lumber after passing up a perfectly good scoring chance in the second period, fired a wrist shot over Sergei Bobrovsky's left shoulder to tie the game at 2:34 of the third. Then, seconds after Brandon Dubinsky was sent off for slew-footing the Flyers captain, Patrick slapped in the rebound of Gostisbehere's point shot – set up by Giroux – and the Flyers had, for the fourth time in the last week, figured out a way to win a game they used to habitually lose.
"It's hard especially when you go through so many games in a short period of time to play you're A game every single time,'' Voracek had said hours before. "What we've done is find the way to win some of those games.''
That's what happened here Tuesday night against Montreal, Voracek rescuing an impending loss with a goal in the last 90 seconds, then winning it in overtime. Against Columbus last Friday, it was Couturier who in overtime reclaimed the two points that a Cam Atkinson goal in the final four minutes had imperiled.
Lyon was surprisingly solid in Tuesday's win and in relief of Michal Neuvirth in Sunday's 7-4 victory over the Rangers. And Neuvy was undoubtedly the difference maker in Columbus a week ago. But neither did the kind of work Mrazek did over those 20 minutes Thursday night, making acrobatic stops against Atkinson, Zach Werenski, and Seth Jones before Panarin beat him.
When it was over, after he had secured the unlikely victory with a big glove save on Jack Johnson's shot inside the final two minutes, Mrazek did a little dance as he skated from the net, pumping both hands.
He looked more than a little like Boucher did when he made that shootout stop to launch the 2009-2010 run to the Finals.