- Flyers goalie Brian Boucher
admits he's never played behind a defense as suffocating as this year's six-man unit in Philadelphia.
The irony is that the Eastern Conference-leading Flyers remain the only team in the League without a shutout this season. While they came close again on Thursday, Boucher was just as thrilled with the next best thing -- a victory.
Jeff Carter and Danny Briere connected for power-play goals in the third period and Boucher turned aside 31 shots as the Flyers continued their mastery of the Carolina Hurricanes with a 2-1 victory before 19,726 at Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers, who stand atop the East with 36 wins and 77 points, have ranked among the top 10 in goals-against average (2.50) much of the season.
The Flyers led 2-0 and were less than eight minutes away from that elusive first shutout before Tuomo Ruutu scored with 7:53 remaining.
"I'm aware we don't have a shutout this year and it's always nice for the goalies, but we tried to keep them off the board, especially in a tight game like that," defenseman Braydon Coburn said.
When asked where exactly this Flyers defense stood in his 11-plus seasons in the League, Boucher had nothing but praise.
"It's probably the best," Boucher said. "We've got six really good defensemen that make our job -- the goalie's job -- a lot easier out there. You can count on them to block shots and make right plays. We've got speed, we've got some skill, we've got the smarts out there. It's fun to play behind them."
After two scoreless periods, Carter put the Flyers ahead 18 seconds into the third when he collected a feed from Mike Richards in the right circle and ripped a power-play wrister that deflected off goalie Cam Ward's left glove and into the net. Carter now has 6 goals and 9 points in his last six games and 10 goals and 15 points in his last 12 contests.
Briere made it 2-0 at 11:27, retrieving a pass from Claude Giroux at the left post before firing up and over Ward from a tough angle. The 'Canes pulled within a goal just 37 seconds after Briere scored when Ruutu, who finished with five hits, jammed home a rebound for his first goal in 12 games.
Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice pulled Ward for an extra attacker with 36 seconds remaining but the club couldn't generate a quality scoring chance. They did generate two late shots off an offensive-zone draw with 22.7 seconds remaining but Boucher was there both times. The victory improved Boucher all-time mark against Carolina to 6-1-0 with a 1.58 goals-against average.
The victory by the Flyers was their second one-goal triumph in the last three games.
"You have to start learning how to win (one-goal games) and (Thursday) was a good start," defenseman Chris Pronger said. "It was goose eggs going into the third. You don't see that very often, but you have to stick with the game plan and stick with how you need to play to be successful. We were able to do that and were fortunate to get the power-play goals to get the win."
"It seems like we're winning quite a few (close games) and we will have to down the stretch and in the playoffs … that's the way it's going to be," Boucher said. "If we don't feel comfortable, we should start feeling comfortable because we're doing a pretty good job at it. It's one of those things where the more you get in those situations, the more comfortable you're going to feel, so there's more hockey to play and hopefully we'll be even more playoff tested when we get there."
Philadelphia has beaten the Hurricanes nine straight times and improved to 15-0-3 in the last 18 meetings between the clubs. The last time Carolina beat the Flyers was Nov. 28, 2008, when current Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was behind the Hurricanes' bench. The Hurricanes have not beaten the Flyers in regulation since Dec. 19, 2006, and have won just 12 of their 54 visits to Philadelphia since joining the League as the Hartford Whalers in 1979.
"We had a hard fight all night but it doesn't matter, we didn't win, and it's still frustrating," Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. "They have some skill, you give up some penalties at the end of the period and they have enough firepower that they can make you pay and they did. We were able to battle one back but it wasn't enough."
The loss kept eighth-place Carolina (59 points) from gaining ground on ninth-place Atlanta (58 points). Buffalo, which won 3-2 in OT at Florida, is just two points back with games in hand on both teams.
"We want to create a gap," Staal said. "We have been fighting long and hard to get ourselves in a safe position, and you want to get comfortable there, so we really need to win. It was a tough one to swallow, but you can't hang your head on it."
A scoreless first period was highlighted by a few good saves by each goalie. Boucher, who admits he was guilty of thinking about notching Philadelphia's first shutout of the season following Briere's goal, stopped Chad LaRose on the doorstep 4:11 into the game. Ward, who made seven saves in the first, turned away Giroux's nifty backhander from the slot at 14:54.
Boucher was then called upon to make a couple big saves during a Carolina power play late in the first. He turned back rookie Jeff Skinner with 1:28 left, then denied Erik Cole's snap shot from the left hash with 37.2 seconds remaining.
"Maybe (a shutout) crossed my mind for a second but I only had a second because that's when they scored so," Boucher said. "I didn't lose concentration, but maybe somebody up in the press box jinxed me."
Skinner, the youngest player in the NHL this season (18 years, 8 months), ranks first among all NHL rookies with 43 points and 23 assists and is tied for first with 16 power-play points. He's also second with 20 goals, 6 power-play goals and 10 power-play assists. He was kept in check against Philadelphia on Thursday.
Carolina failed to help its cause in the game by finishing 0-for-5 on the power play. Philadelphia has killed 30 of its last 32 shorthanded situations over the last 10 games. The Flyers went 2-for-6 with the man advantage.
"The specialty teams were good, we scored two big one on the power-play and our penalty-killing was great," Laviolette said. "Boosh was probably our best penalty-killer."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale