WASHINGTON — Alain Vigneault virtually pranced down the tunnel that led from the Flyers’ dressing rooms behind the team’s PR man, Zack Hill, who delivered the coach to an especially large assemblage of press types 2 hours before game time.
“Somebody told Zack it was a big game today,” Vigneault said. Pause. Smile. “That was me!”
Vigneault jokes a lot, but this time his demeanor was different. This was in playoff mode. A win would bring the Flyers to within a point of first place of the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division. The coach was hyped.
He rocked back and forth on his toes. He clapped his hands together once, then twice, then he clasped them one on top of the other, fingers writhing in nervous agony. He wore the brown vest and slacks of his three-piece suit, with a slim brown tie that had a thin blue stripe and matched the brown and blue lines on his shirt.
He looked like a Southern Baptist preacher who’d had five cups of coffee before his 11 a.m. sermon.
“It’s a big game,” he said. “And we’re ready for it.”
Were they ever.
The Flyers routed the Caps, 5-2, for their seventh win in a row. Kevin Hayes had a goal and an assist, but his penalty-killing play made him the game’s first star as much as his scoring; Washington was 0-for-5 on the power play.
The Flyers followed Hayes. They were coolly efficient. Like a contender should be. They took care of their chief competition; again, as a contender should do. They finished the season 3-0-1 against the Caps and sent another resounding message throughout the league.
“You saw how good a team we have,” said defenseman Ivan Provorov.
They do this on demand.
“The one thing you saw tonight was our will,” Vigneault said. “We came to play.”
They’ve come to play against the Capitals all season. A 3-2 win over the Caps in Philadelphia on Jan. 8 began the 17-5-2 stretch that has caught the attention of the entire NHL. A 7-2 win here a month later validated similar wins, against the Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Colorado Avalanche.
The Flyers entered the Jan. 8 game 12 points behind the Capitals but have shaved that deficit by 11 points. The Capitals have now lost eight of their last 12 games, and their hold on first place couldn’t be less secure. They play two more games in the next three days, against the Rangers and Penguins.
With just 16 games remaining, Vigneault exited this game with a measure of the fiber of his team when the atmosphere gets thick.
“I liked how we prepared ourselves. We had a plan,” Vigneault said. “We stuck to it.”
As usual, the plan revolved around Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin. It worked. The Flyers held the Great 8 without a point, as they’ve done all four games this season. Ovie is No. 2 scorer among active players, with 1,274 points, and he has a chance to catch Wayne Gretzky for the all-time lead in goals before he retires, but the Flyers are the only team he’s faced more than twice this season without registering a point. Provorov, his Russian countryman, has had a lot to do with that. That was especially true Wednesday night.
Provorov destroyed Ovechkin with a check behind the Flyers’ goal midway through the second period. He offered a rare smile when asked about it afterward.
“I came with momentum there. I was trying to pin him. It was bigger than I thought it would be," Provorov said, beaming. Was that his best hit ever against Ovechkin? "Probably. Yeah."
In a game in which Capitals ruffian Tom Wilson won two fights — against Nate Thompson in the first period, Robert Hagg in the second — the Flyers were the more effectively physical team. Five minutes after Provorov’s big hit, Sean Couturier clobbered Dmitry Orlov about 5 minutes later. The Flyers outhit the Caps, 30-23.
This is why the Flyers replaced Dave Hakstol, a college coach who failed to win a playoff series in the two trips he made with the Flyers in his three full seasons. Vigneault reached the playoffs four of the five seasons he coached the Rangers, won at least one series three times and reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014.
This is why Vigneault saved 21-year-old Carter Hart for Thursday’s home game against Carolina. Hart, in his first full season, plays best at the Wells Fargo Center. He’s 18-2-2 at home, 4-10-1 on the road, so why risk ruining him in Washington?
This is why Vigneault instead started 34-year-old Brian Elliott, who has seen playoff action in seven of his 11 previous seasons. Nothing bothers ol’ Moose. He hadn’t played in 13 days, but he still stopped 25 of 27 shots, and all 12 in the third period.
“Like in the playoffs, you’re just trying to quiet yourself down,” Elliott said. “It gets your blood going, but sometimes you have to move a little slower.”
As a matter of fact, Elliott had played only twice since winning here Feb. 8. The Flyers took control of that game in the second period. They did the same thing Wednesday: outshot the Caps, 18-8; scored three times; drew four penalties. They scored on one of those power plays, and they scored moments after another expired.
It was icily done. So was the punctuator.
The Caps had cut it to 3-2 late in the second, but the Flyers were unfazed. With 13 1/2 minutes to play in the third period, Jake Voracek carried the puck into the Caps’ zone, waited inside the blue line for reinforcements, then laid a pass with perfect pace on Provorov’s stick as he blazed up the left wing. Provorov carried and snapped a shot under Braden Holtby’s gloved left hand for a 4-2 lead.
Big plays in a big, big game; a game whose magnitude Vigneault did not undersell to his players.
“Yeah, he mentioned that a few times,” Provorov said.
Vigneault couldn’t help but mention it to anyone who’d listen. On Tuesday, he’d sent a text to Capitals assistant Scott Arniel, who was Vigneault’s special-teams coach for five seasons with the Rangers. The text?
“ ‘Did you hear this was a big game?’ ” Vigneault said, laughing.