ST. LOUIS — After parts of seven seasons in the minors, defenseman Will O’Neill finally realized his dream and reached the NHL on Thursday night.
At age 29.
As if that wasn’t momentous enough, O’Neill and the Flyers’ oh-so-green defense — missing three injured veterans — helped engineer a stunning 2-0 victory over a St. Louis team that had the most points in the NHL and hadn’t lost at home this season.
“It’s always nice to contribute to a win, and I thought everybody played great,” O’Neill said after the Flyers’ most unlikely victory of the young season.
O’Neill was used sparingly, playing just 9 minutes and 25 seconds. But he played strong positional hockey, jumped into the offense a few times and took three shots. He was paired mostly with Mark Alt and a bit with Robert Hagg because he was each’s partner on the AHL’s Phantoms.
“I just tried to keep the puck going, keep the game going and compete as hard as I could,” O’Neill said. “Good team effort, and I was happy to be a part of it.”
Despite his long career in the minors, O’Neill said he didn’t lose faith.
“I always believed in myself that I was a good player, that I could play at this level,” O’Neill said. “There were certainly times where it seemed I really couldn’t catch a break, but things happen for a reason and you keep getting better as a player and an organization recognizes that and you get a chance. That’s all you want.”
O’Neill’s mother and sister traveled from his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts, to be at the game. So did his “best friend I grew up across the street from. My dad’s a hockey coach and he couldn’t come (because) he had a game, but I’ll call him later,” O’Neill said.
For the first time in franchise history, the Flyers used four defensemen who had fewer than 15 games of NHL experience: Hagg (14), Travis Sanheim (10), Alt (3), and O’Neill, who was inserted in the lineup because of an injury to Radko Gudas. The Flyers defense is also missing two other injured players, Andrew MacDonald and Shayne Gostisbehere.
The Flyers became the first team to win a game with four defensemen with fewer than 15 NHL games of experience since Colorado in a 2009.
“Everybody is here for a reason. Everybody can play,” said Ivan Provorov, who anchored the defense by playing 27:11, dishing out five hits, and tying MacDonald’s club record with 10 blocked shots. “The guys who came in did a really good job.”
Added Provorov: “I think everybody really battled hard. The boys played for each other, played smart, and that’s why we got the win.”
The hard-fought victory pushed the Flyers to 7-6-1 entering Saturday night’s game against visiting Colorado.
“It was a grind,” right winger Jake Voracek said. “They are a heavy, big team. I think we knew we had to play like that — patient.”
They received an outstanding performance from Michal Neuvirth, who made 33 saves, including 12 in the first 11 minutes, and from a patchwork defense that included O’Neill.
O’Neill, who will not play Saturday if Gudas or Gostisbehere returns, said he never thought about walking away from the sport.
“I love to play the game,” he said. “It’s great and I always thought, ‘Keep on playing. Keep on playing,’ no matter where it takes me.”
On Thursday, it took him to the Scottrade Center, site of the Flyers’ grittiest win of the season.
Notes: Sean Couturier took a blindside hit to the head from former Flyer Brayden Schenn in the second period but returned in the third period after going through the concussion protocol. “I just lost my wind there,” Couturier said.
“I was trying to catch my breath. I was kind of panicking. I thought I was going to die for a second. I was fine a minute later.” ... There’s a chance first-round draft pick Nolan Patrick (concussion symptoms) will return Saturday.