WASHINGTON - The Flyers learned two discouraging things last night.
They learned that Alex Ovechkin is every bit as good as advertised, and they learned that Marty Biron just might not be as good as they need him to be.
The Capitals' 22-year-old Russian superstar spent most of his Friday evening skating around, hovering along the periphery of the action. He threw a couple of checks, made a couple decent passes, fired a puck or two wide of the net. Nothing that made you think you were watching the best hockey player in the universe.
And then, in a ridiculous flash, Ovechkin single-handedly won Game 1 of this first-round playoff series by undressing three professional hockey players in one brazen motion.
The third of those victims was Biron, although Ovechkin got to the goaltender only by skating through a puddle where defenseman Lasse Kukkonen had been a moment before.
It was an astonishing, singular effort by Ovechkin. He took a routine play - Kukkonen was making a pass to partner Jaroslav Modry that you see 100 times a game - and turned it into a game- and maybe series-changing goal.
"Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Lasse makes the right play there," Flyers center Mike Richards said.
This was that hundredth time.
First, Ovechkin broke up the pass, muscling the puck off Modry's stick. It rolled back toward Kukkonen, who started forward without realizing that Ovechkin was still in monster mode. Ovechkin lifted Kukkonen's stick, took the puck away and then turned to face Biron. He drifted toward his right, finally getting Biron to drop to the ice.
"I tried to throw everything I had at him," Biron said.
Ovechkin flipped the puck into the net, and the Capitals had turned a 4-2 Flyers lead into a rousing 5-4 victory.
"It's not devastating by any stretch," Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn said. "It's a game we would have liked to have."
It's a game they did have, thanks to brilliant play by Danny Briere, Vinny Prospal and Richards. When a team opens a 4-2 lead in the second period of a playoff game, it has to find a way to win it. The most important player on the ice then becomes the goaltender.
Biron couldn't be blamed for the game-winning goal. That resulted from a complete breakdown in front of him. But he gave up a couple of goals on hard shots that he had clear looks at.
There is a difference between being a good NHL goaltender and being the kind of goaltender who can carry a team through a playoff run. To borrow a phrase from The Godfather, you need a goalie to be a "wartime consigliere."
Last night, Biron was Tom Hagen. Good, but not a wartime consigliere.
The game-tying goal was one of the strangest in memory. The Capitals were on the power play. Defenseman Mike Green, whose haircut inspires all those red-dyed Mohawks worn by Caps fans, fired a shot from the left point. Flyers forward Patrick Thoresen dropped to the ice to block it.
He did and was seriously injured. General manager Paul Holmgren grimly told reporters after the game that Thoresen may lose a testicle.
Let the record show that the Verizon Center fans - who discovered ice hockey about the time Ovechkin started putting up crazy numbers - cheered as Thoresen writhed in pain on the ice. No doubt the national media will be as harsh on the Washington fans as they would be if the same thing had happened in Philadelphia.
The officials let the action continue. Ovechkin fetched the loose puck and slid it back to Green. This time, Green fired a shot over Biron's glove hand to tie the game at 4.
It was a good shot. A shutdown goaltender - a wartime goaltender - stops it.
It isn't time to overreact. This isn't Roman Cechmanek wandering around while opponents fire pucks into his empty net. It was Biron's first playoff game, and he acknowledged a case of nerves.
"There were some jitters early in the game," Biron said. "We've got to get into our rhythm."
Flyers coach John Stevens, asked merely to evaluate Biron's play, immediately took the opportunity to mute possible criticism. He has a series here, after all.
"Obviously you have a 4-2 lead there," Stevens said. "Guys stepped in and teed up from some difficult places to see. . . . We're in this together here."
"People are going to make the point that we were up and blah, blah, blah," Briere said, summarizing this column in advance. "We gave them a couple goals they really didn't have to work for. . . . It's frustrating to lose, but we can't put our heads down. We can't start pointing fingers at anybody."
Except for that Ovechkin fella, that is.