Cross Checks: Eric Wellwood

PITTSBURGH -- It looks like six rookies will suit up for the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday night.

That’s a lot.

And a lot is riding on the performances of those young players. In fact, it’s not a stretch to suggest that the ability of Matt Read, Sean Couturier, Eric Wellwood, Zac Rinaldo, Brayden Schenn and Marc-Andre Bourdon to put aside the inevitable rookie playoff jitters and continue to fulfill the significant roles they’ve been asked to play for the Flyers this season will be a determining factor in this series.

A risky proposition against a battle-tested Penguins team?

Coach Peter Laviolette doesn’t think so.

“We didn’t go: 'Oh, my god, it’s your first playoff series.' I don’t think that would help us,” Laviolette said, joking Wednesday morning after the team’s final workout before Game 1.

Instead, in a season that has seen so many firsts for this group of players, this is merely another stop on the journey. Sure the stakes are higher but they’re higher for everyone.

“Our younger players have been used, utilized in every situation imaginable to this point," Laviolette said.
"They got the opportunity to be part of the HBO [series], part of the Winter Classic, and never once has there been any lack of confidence from our organization, our staff or their teammates for that matter about the ability to play the game and contribute to our success. And they are contributing factors.

“For me this is not a roll the dice and hope they make it through. This is we need you to do your job, the job that you’ve done all year, you’ve done it so well."

With the Flyers going through a dramatic overhaul in personnel last offseason, opportunity presented itself to this group of young players that might not otherwise have been the case. The players have embraced it, as a group, in a way that borders on astonishing, as eight first-year players played in as at least 24 games.

Read is almost certain to finish in the top five in voting for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Couturier has evolved into a fine defensive specialist. Rinaldo, who actually dressed for two playoff games last spring but played little, is an agitating presence who leads the team in penalty minutes, and Bourdon has been impressive filling in on the blue line.

Yes, the group’s inexperience at this level at this time of the year can’t be denied. But there’s little reason to suggest it will prevent the group from continuing to do what it has been doing.

“They gave us no reason to believe that life would be any different than it was yesterday. They’re a terrific group and we count on them for our success,” Laviolette said.

Years from now all those players will remember this day as a significant step. Each preparing for it differently.
Wellwood, whose brother Kyle plays for the Winnipeg Jets, was hoping his experiences as a two-time Memorial Cup winner with the Windsor Spitfires would help keep him grounded.

Read was going to try to visualize good things happening to him in Game 1 -- a big hit, scoring a goal, having a good shift.

“That way when it comes to the game, you don’t have to double-think things,” Read said. “I’m trying not to make it any different than any other game."

Rinaldo, likewise, was looking to keep his mind clear until he arrived at the rink. His father and other family members made the trip from the family home in Hamilton, Ontario, to watch the game in Pittsburgh, so he thought he might go have a coffee with his dad.

“If I want to go outside and I want to go and take a walk, I’ll take a walk. I don’t have any rituals that I do or anything like that. I’m not superstitious,” Rinaldo said. “When it comes to coming to the rink, then it’s back to the grindstone."

Laviolette didn’t have any special words of wisdom for his group of youngsters other than it’s business as usual.

“It’s been a ride for us,” Rinaldo said. "Definitely ups and downs throughout the season, but [Laviolette] said we’ve done a great job and just to keep going keep positive and not let any type of situation get us too high or too low. Kind of stay in the middle and just keep grinding it out."

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