WASHINGTON'S THIRD goal, shot from a wide angle, hit Jason Smith in the pants and went in. It did little to quell the angst of the crowd. Martin Biron was back at it again, playing a jittery game of flop and slip, giving up the soft goal, looking like the guy who would single-handedly sabotage the Flyers' chances when their latest playoff run began last Friday.

That was before Biron's 2-0 Game 2 masterpiece, before an equally impressive effort in Game 3, when he made several incredible saves and never surrendered a lead.

"At the start, he lost some of his patience a little bit," Flyers goaltending coach Reggie Lemelin said before last night's 4-3 double-overtime victory over the Capitals pushed the Flyers to a 3-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal. "If you drop early, now there's gaps up there."

That's how it looked at the start last night, when the Flyers had a chance to hammer away at a young team still navigating through the requirements of playoff hockey. Instead, there was Biron, scrambling almost comically on his knees across the goal, not balanced, not square, not looking good as defenseman Steve Eminger - Steve Eminger? - shot from an impossible angle and bounced it past an unbalanced Biron.

Three-two, Washington, its first lead since Alex Ovechkin's game-winner Friday night. A fourth goal seemed imminent.

Marty seemed a mess.

Hockey has more than enough statistics to measure success, as Ovechkin and Danny Briere can attest. What there is no stat for, what there really can't be, is competitiveness. What do you do when you get punched in the mouth? What do you do when it's your fault? It's what separates the Chase Utleys and Mike Richardses from players with similar numbers, even within his own team. And in these playoffs, it has put Biron among the special ones, too.

He played his best last night after allowing that goal. Time and again, as the Flyers clung to dear life late in the second period, and as they traded chances looking for the tying goal in the third, Biron sticked aside long shots into the corner with authority and joined the scrum in front of his net when needed.

He froze pucks and restored calm. With 5:56 left in regulation, he stoned David Steckel. Alone in the slot early in the first overtime, Milan Jurcina was denied. He stopped eight shots in the third period, another dozen in the two overtimes. From the time the third goal went in to Mike Knuble's game-winner, he had nearly amassed a full game's worth of shutout hockey.

"That was an unbelievable hockey game," he said. "Both teams played really hard and battled to the end. They got great chances to score. So did we. We were just lucky enough to have ours go in."

Luck? Hardly. To his credit, and unlike previous opposing coaches who have tried (and sometimes succeeded) in linking the Flyers to their brawling past, Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau had both feet planted in today's hockey world while assessing his team's shortcomings entering Game 4.

"Hockey is a simple game," he said. "You have to shoot the puck, drive to the net and get rebounds. That's how you generate chances. That's how it's been since the beginning of time."

He should have added one more: Contain the other guys' best player.

Anyway, anyhow.

For 60 minutes.

That's how the Flyers took control of this series, why they might have even been looking to clinch last night if not for that third-period Game 1 meltdown. Called everything from a ghost to dog, Ovechkin entered last night's game with three points and a nation's worth of frustration on his face.

On the other side of that ledger was Briere, who kept finding the puck on his stick in advantageous situations regardless of where he was on the ice. He shot the puck, drove the net and generated chances, and when play began last night, he had four goals and had been on the ice for eight goals.

Clearly, he was the player most responsible for Washington's predicament, and thus was hit hard and often as the first period got under way last night.

At first, he did not react very well. Hooking the stick, roughing, slashing - Briere had more penalty minutes than ice time in the first period, and almost doubled his penalty time from the three games combined.

The Capitals scored two power-play goals with him off the ice.

That reversed an early Flyers lead, and forced that chase-the-game mentality that often results in overrun pucks, soft and inaccurate passes and increased mayhem in your own zone. Softer or chippier ice, probably a result of the warming temperatures outside, only exacerbated that.

So did Biron's early yippiness. His puckhandling alone, as it has all series, created a slew of anxious moments, once almost banking it off Scott Hartnell.

But in sports, you are remembered for how it looks at the end, how you respond when your humanity is exposed. Ovechkin set up Washington's first two goals, but he will be remembered in this game for leaving Knuble alone on the game-winner. Briere gave the Caps life, but took it away with the tying goal in the third.

Biron will be remembered as the guy who pitched a shutout when things looked their worst. In his first playoff, he is sure making up for lost time. *

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