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Flyers 3, Lightning 2: Noah Cates scores game-winner as Flyers remain unbeaten

The Flyers just can’t be stopped after they’re down 2-0.

Philadelphia Flyers v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Not a ton of fans expected the Philadelphia Flyers to start the season 2-0-0, but given the quality of their first two opponents — the New Jersey Devils are a total mess and the Vancouver Canucks were pegged “mentally weak” by their own head coach — a perfect start to the season might not have been as improbable as many assumed.

Tuesday night, though, the Flyers faced their first legitimate test of the season. The Tampa Bay Lightning have been a top team in the NHL over the last decade or so, and beating the star-studded juggernaut would be a tall task for any club, let alone a team going through an identity crisis.

But against all odds, the Flyers managed to pull out a massive 3-2 victory on the road to remain perfect on the season. The Flyers advance to 3-0-0, and they’ve done so in spite of trailing in each of their first three tilts.

With just 7:16 remaining in the third period, 23-year-old forward Noah Cates scored the game-winning goal off a Lightning defensive-zone turnover to give the Flyers their first lead of the night. The Flyers then leaned on goaltender Carter Hart to shut down Tampa’s last-ditch efforts to even the score in the game’s waning seconds.

This marks the first time the Flyers have beaten the Lightning in the regular season since December of 2017 — over two years years before the start of the pandemic.

“The hockey gods reward if you’re on the right side of the puck, and for this team and for me personally that kind of came into fruition today,” said Cates after the game.

“Another big win for us, and when we’re playing the right way and getting rewarded it’s nice for this team to see that it works and see that it’ll come.”

Neither team was able to open the scoring within the contest’s first 20 minutes, but keeping Tampa off the board through a third of a game is no walk in the park. Hart, who has allowed easy first-period goals in each of the Flyers’ first two games, was excellent early on, stopping all nine shots fired his way in the first third.

However, his miniature run of perfection didn’t last long into the second period. Just 1:25 into the middle frame, Tampa captain Steven Stamkos scored on the power play to break the ice. The 32-year-old was left completely uncovered by the Flyers’ penalty kill, and Hart was unable to stop his clapper from the left faceoff circle.

Stamkos then scored a second power-play goal just minutes later. After a post-whistle melee in the Flyers zone in which Justin Braun (!) and Corey Perry exchanged punches, forward Zack MacEwen — who was making his regular-season debut — was also assessed a penalty for roughing, which awarded Tampa its second man advantage of the night.

From that point on, Hart stood tall to keep Tampa from adding to their goal total. He finished with 36 saves on 38 shots and ultimately earned the decision over Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy for the first time in his career.

“We’re just trying to get a win. Doesn’t matter who we’re playing or who’s in the opposing goal,” said Hart after the game. “My job is to stop the puck and our job as a team is to win hockey games, so this was a big win for us tonight.”

As was the case in their first two games of the season, the Flyers didn’t roll over after falling into the early hole. Just after the game’s midway point, Scott Laughton scored his second goal of the season to cut the Tampa lead in half. Defenseman Egor Zamula fired a wrister from the half boards on net that created a juicy rebound, and Laughton, in the right place at the right time, was there to bury it.

Zamula was awarded his first NHL point on the marker.

Shortly after Laughton’s tally, the Flyers put together another pair of quality scoring chances, but neither of them managed to get past Vasilevskiy. One of which came off the stick of Kevin Hayes, who was stopped at point-blank range after receiving a well-placed cross-ice feed from Travis Konecny. The other came from, of course, Laughton. Wade Allison fed Laughton — the only player on the Flyers roster currently wearing a letter — with a gorgeous saucer feed through the slot, but Laughton’s redirection attempt went just wide of the net.

While the second-period scoring chances from Laughton and Hayes proved futile, James van Riemsdyk eventually did manage to find the back of the net to even the score early in the final frame. And he did it doing what he does best — simply being in the way.

Parked in front of Vasilevskiy on an early third-period power play, the 33-year-old veteran took away the All-Star netminder’s eyes and redirected a wrist shot from Hayes through the five-hole.

With momentum securely in the Flyers’ favor, it was eventually Cates who gave the Flyers their well-deserved first (and only) lead of the night. After a blocked Zamula shot ended up on the stick of Tampa defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, Cates singlehandedly willed his way to forcing a turnover by muddying the passing lanes with his stick and firing a quick, spinning wrister past Vasilevskiy to silence the Tampa crowd.

Not a bad way to score your first goal of the season.

Flyers head coach John Tortorella lauded Cates’ efforts all throughout training camp, and that has continued in the regular season’s early going. Cates, a former standout at the University of Minnesota Duluth, has done nothing but impress since joining the Flyers late last season. Now serving as the club’s third-line center, one can imagine the Stillwater, Minnesota native — primarily used as a winger prior to this season — will only continue to earn more opportunities as the campaign progresses.

“I’m always looking for him on the bench,” Tortorella said of Cates.

“Killed a big penalty where I was just using four guys killing penalties in the third period — him and three other guys. It’s not only good short-term here, for the big picture — and I still keep an eye on the big picture with this team — it’s a huge piece. Scores a goal. A big goal. We want him to score also, not just rely on the defensive part of the game. I just think it’s really exciting now, but I’m also looking in the future, what he becomes as we get growing as a team.”

The Flyers will be right back in action Wednesday night as they take on the Florida Panthers at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise. They’ll then wrap up their first road trip of the season Saturday against the Nashville Predators.