NEW YORK – When Michal Neuvirth claims Sunday night’s win over the Rangers was “one of the biggest of my career,’’ that’s saying something.
The goaltender has had his ups and downs during his three-plus seasons with the Flyers but there have been some brilliant highs, like that shutout against the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup playoffs a few years ago.
Injuries, of course, have hampered Neuvirth from playing a lot, in fact, he’s only been in 84 games with Philadelphia.
But Sunday night, he showed he can still turn in a brilliant performance.
After playing in only two of a possible 35 games this season, he stopped 32 of 34 shots in regulation and overtime, then four more tries by the New York Rangers in a shootout before securing a 3-2 victory at Madison Square Garden.
In the final four minutes of regulation time, Neuvirth made two sensational saves, including one on Pavel Buchnevich in the last minute.
Nolan Patrick scored on the Flyers’ fourth try in the shootout for the game-winner.
That runs the Flyers’ record to 3-1 under new coach Scott Gordon.
Neuvirth said having to sit out so much tested his nerves but somehow he got through it.
“I was trying to stay patient,’’ he said. “Work hard everyday, get better. I’ve been in the league for some time and I know I can play at this level. My body is feeling pretty good, finally. I got rewarded for the hard work I did.’’
When Neuvirth is playing with a positive mindset, he’s hard to beat. Just ask the Rangers. They were stoned time and again, especially down the stretch.
“I was getting more confident with each save,’’ he said. “In the third, I just let it play. This means a lot for me personally. It feels really nice. I’m just focusing on myself. I don’t read anything (from the doubters). I just work hard and see what happens.’’
If Neuvirth can remain healthy, it would give the Flyers a nice 1-2 tandem with Carter Hart, especially with Brian Elliott expected to miss a significant amount of playing time due to injury.
“Neuvy was awesome,’’ coach Scott Gordon said. “Obviously with the time off and how his year has gone, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. He certainly did a great job for us tonight. He made that huge save (on Buchnevich) in front of the net. I think everybody is happy for him.’’
Some of the players confirmed exactly that.
“It’s unreal,’’ Patrick said. “You feel for him when he’s kind of battling injuries throughout the year. He was unbelievable tonight. The save he made (on Buchnevich) was unbelievable. He was great in the shootout, so he’s a big part of the team.’’
A defenseman like Travis Sanheim can appreciate what Neuvirth can bring when an opponent is swarming deep in the attack zone.
“It was great to see, I think everyone was happy for him,’’ Sanheim said. “He played so well tonight, he was a key to us winning.’’
Michael Raffl has been around long enough not to sell Neuvirth’s ability short.
“You never hear him complaining, he’s had a lot of trouble with injuries,’’ Raffl said. “Talking about career-ending stuff. The way he stepped up tonight, it’s awesome to see.’’
The Flyers managed to keep the Rangers in check through the first two periods, allowing just one goal – on a Chris Kreider break-in at 10:05 of the first period. Kreider finished off an outlet pass from Kevin Hayes, leaving Sanheim and Ivan Provorov a couple steps behind
Raffl countered for the Flyers in the second period, notching his first goal of the season when he stepped in alone on Henrik Lundqvist and beat him glove side from about 25 feet at 1:46.
Raffl was relieved to get that bagel out of the way.
“It felt pretty good, to be honest,’’ Raffl said. “Twenty games is a long time. I don’t think I’ve been playing pretty bad so I had it coming. I talked a little bit to the boys yesterday and they told me to shoot the puck a little more and I took it to heart and finally got one in.”
On the break, Raffl had Scott Laughton on his flank. But the thought of a pass didn’t cross Raffl’s mind.
“I saw him coming on the left but I was 100 percent sure he wasn’t going to touch the puck,’’ Raffl said with a smile. “I was thinking shot the whole way.”
Wayne Simmonds gave the Flyers a 2-1 lead at 5:01 of the third on a rare power-play goal. Sean Couturier bounced a shot off the post and Simmonds jammed the rebound into the net.
That lead lasted all of 22 seconds. Boo Nieves, a fourth-liner who had not scored in a year, was left all alone in front by Provorov and Nieves made no mistake.
In the shootout, Patrick said he took stock of what Lundqvist did against Jake Voracek, Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk.
“I had a plan,’’ Patrick said. “I watched the first couple shots. I kind of figured out what I was going to do. He was pretty deep in his net. It’s a move I like to do, I’ve done it quite a bit throughout my life, so I’m confident with it.’’