Cross Checks: Sean Couturier

NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers squandered a 2-0 lead as the Philadelphia Flyers rallied from behind with four unanswered goals for a 4-2 win over the Blueshirts on Sunday that tied the series 1-1 and sends the two teams back to Philly for Game 3 at Wells Fargo Center.

An undisciplined and defensively porous Flyers team was exposed in the first period, but recovered in the second to become the aggressors in the latter half of the game.


Philly's penalty-killing effort was superb, limiting the Rangers to just one goal in six power-play opportunities for New York. Anchoring the Flyers in net, backup netminder Ray Emery delivered a fine 31-save performance to prove himself capable of handling the load with regular starter Steve Mason on the shelf with injury.

Mason, who has missed the first two games of the series, is hoping to make his return in Game 3, but Flyers coach Craig Berube may have a difficult decision on his hands once Mason returns to good health.

Redemption shot: Flyers rookie forward Jason Akeson got a sweet taste of redemption Sunday afternoon, with his rebound goal on a gaping net to knot the score at 2 in the second period. Akeson had a rough night in his NHL playoff debut in Game 1 on Thursday, taking a double-minor high-sticking penalty on Carl Hagelin that resulted in a pair of power-play goals for the Rangers. Nonetheless, Flyers coach Craig Berube expressed faith in the youngster, going right back to him on Sunday. Akeson started the game with linemates Matt Read and center Sean Couturier and continued to receive power-play time as well. His power-play marker at 5:45 on Sunday was his second career goal in only his fourth NHL game.

Fast and loose: The NHL’s most penalized team through the regular season was, unsurprisingly, not very disciplined once again. The Flyers gave the Rangers’ special teams plenty of work in the beginning of the game, putting them on the power play three times in the opening frame, twice on ill-advised offensive-zone penalties. The Blueshirts capitalized on only one of those man-up opportunities, when Benoit Pouliot’s flubbed shot from the right circle beat Emery for a two-goal lead at 8:22. That goal highlighted another major problem area for the Flyers: They gave the Rangers entirely too much room on the ice to execute the type of cross-ice feeds that set up Pouliot and resulted in Martin St. Louis’ first playoff goal of the series earlier in the period. The Flyers failed to clog up the passing lanes and paid for it dearly as the Blueshirts jumped out to a 2-0 lead.

There they are: Largely ineffective in Game 1, the Flyers’ first line came alive late in the first period with an expert rush that allowed them to cut the Rangers’ lead in half at 2-1. Sprung by linemate Scott Hartnell, skilled winger Jakub Voracek blew past defenseman Ryan McDonagh (how rarely does that happen?) and beat Lundqvist for his third career playoff goal with 5:46 remaining in the first period. Voracek and first-line center Claude Giroux were both held without a shot in Game 1 on Thursday.
With the Flyers about to miss the playoffs for only the second time in 18 seasons, the focus in Philadelphia turns to what has to be done for the team to avoid a similar fate a year from now.

This isn't a town where missing the playoffs is taken lightly. Owner Ed Snider wants to win -- now.

Having said that, there's the danger of overreacting to a lockout-shortened season when a lot of strange and surprising things happened around the league.

"There's a fine line between winning and losing in our league, that's how tight it is," Flyers GM Paul Holmgren told ESPN.com Monday. "You don't have to look very closely at the standings to recognize that. There's a few teams that had runaway years, you look at Pittsburgh and Chicago in particular, but everybody else is fairly close.

"I look at our team, it's amazing that's where we're at with the power play and penalty killing near the top of the league; but 5-on-5 goals, we're way down. That's probably what did us in, more than anything."

Indeed, it's hard to believe a team that Monday morning sat third overall on the power play and sixth on the penalty kill will miss the playoffs. However, when you look at the 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio (one of my favorite stats), the Flyers sit 28th overall at 0.82, just ahead of the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers.

"We changed the way we played a little bit in our end and I think it affected us offensively," Holmgren said. "We didn't really get the hang of how we were trying to play, I think."

Not re-signing Jaromir Jagr last season has been pointed out by many as a mistake, as the future Hall of Famer meshed very well with Claude Giroux last season. Trading James van Riemsdyk to the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer has also been linked to the Flyers' offensive struggles.

Losing Scott Hartnell for a month early in the season to a broken foot was a huge loss to the top line. It was the beginning of a long list of injuries to the Flyers in general that certainly impacted the team.

"Obviously losing people at different times of the year doesn't help," Holmgren said. "But you have to find ways to fight through that stuff, and we didn't."

Another key factor: The Flyers had hoped that second-year forwards Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier would take their games to another level, and that simply didn't happen.

"We rely a lot on Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, they both played significant minutes this year," Holmgren said. "They probably had similar years than they had last year in terms of numbers if you pro-rate it, but obviously when you're playing those minutes maybe you expect a little more. Maybe our expectations were a little bit too high for those young guys. I think they're both good young players; they're going to continue to grow and get better. Sometimes you can't speed up that process no matter what you do. You just have to let time take care of it."

Sometimes when young players don't develop as quickly as the team had hoped, the coaching staff feels the heat.

And certainly with the pressure to win in Philadelphia, missing the playoffs is usually a dangerous thing for a coach. But when asked about the future of Peter Laviolette, Holmgren denied the speculation about the coach being in trouble.

"I've never even thought along those lines," Holmgren said. "I think Peter's a good coach, I think our coaches have done a good job under the circumstances. Nobody's happy with the position we're in and not being in the playoffs. We need to sit down at talk at the end of the year and figure out a way to get back in. That's what we do."

There's been just as much if not more speculation about the future of Ilya Bryzgalov, who is wrapping up Year 2 of a nine-year, $51 million deal with the Flyers. Some believe the proper thing to do with the Russian netminder would be to use one of the two compliance buyouts the NHL offered up in the new CBA which don't count against the cap. All it would cost is money, as in $23 million over the next 14 years according to capgeek.com, if the Flyers were to buy him out.

That talk intensified at the trade deadline after the Flyers acquired goalie Steve Mason. But as Holmgren put it Monday, he was only trying to strengthen the team's depth of the position, not replace Bryzgalov. People should not have read more into it than that, the GM said.

"Steve is a guy that we've liked. When the opportunity came up to make the trade for him, it was the intention of having good goaltending," Holmgren said. "I think right now with Ilya and Steve, we've got good goaltending moving forward. Any talk of anything other than that I think is out of bounds."

The point, Holmgren said, is to protect Bryzgalov next season so he doesn't have to play too many games.

"Ilya played a lot of games this year, but he's not going to play 82 games next season," Holmgren said. "You need a guy that can go in. Steve's a young guy still, he's had some success at an early age in our league. I think working with (goalies coach) Jeff Reese he can get back to a good level. He certainly has the right attitude about it. He's been great since he's been here."

To be clear, I asked Holmgren if there was any basis at all to the speculation of a Bryzgalov buyout.

"No," he said.

But there is offseason work to be done for a Flyers team that is just three years removed from a berth in the Stanley Cup final.

"Now we have to figure out a way to get back in the thick of things," Holmgren said. "I like our group moving forward. We'll look at a number of different things through the draft and through the rest of the summer and come up with something that will help us get back in the mix."

Temper, temper, Sidney

April, 15, 2012
4/15/12
9:56
PM ET
PHILADELPHIA -- At some point Penguins center Sidney Crosby sent Jakub Voracek’s glove away as he tried to pick it up during one of the late-game dust-ups.

After the game a reporter asked Crosby is that was a reflection of the team’s frustration.

“I don’t like any guy on their team. His glove was near me, he went to pick it up and I pushed it,” Crosby said.

“Because why, I’m sorry?” the reporter said.

“I don’t like him,” Crosby said.

“Why don’t you like him?” Crosby was asked.

”Because I don’t like him. I don’t like any guy on their team. So ...,” Crosby said.

A few minutes later, Crosby went back to the incident.

“Guys are emotional and there’s a lot of stuff going on out there," he said. "There’s no reason to explain. I don’t have to sit here and explain why I pushed a glove away. They’re doing a lot of things out there, too. You know what? We don’t like each other. Was I going to sit there and pick up his glove for him? What was I supposed to do?”

The same reporter suggested he could have skated away.

“Skate away? OK, well, I didn’t that time,” Crosby shot back. “It’s the playoffs and a lot of things happen out there from both sides. Everyone is guilty of it. Nobody is blaming anyone here. It’s heated out there and that’s what the playoffs are like.”

***

The strange sight of Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux dropping the gloves in the first period of Game 3 harkened back to the now-famous fight during the 2004 Stanley Cup finals between Calgary’s Jarome Iginla and Tampa’s Vincent Lecavalier.

“I thought it was great. In the end, that’s really playoff hockey, isn’t it?” Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette said. “A couple of the best players in the world dropping the gloves and going at it? Would I rather have [Giroux] keep his gloves on? Sure. But when he’s fighting Sidney Crosby, that’s the playoff hockey, that’s this series. In the end, that’s probably what it’s about. You get guys out there and they want to win on both sides and they’ll do anything to do it. You’ve got to be ready to play at that level.”

***

While the Flyers and their fans were enraged there was no call when James Neal leveled Sean Couturier in the third period, Neal said he tried to hold up.

“Yeah, I’m flying through the neutral zone, I’m regrouping, I didn’t even mean to hit him. I don’t know if the puck was in his feet or not or where it was. I let up as much as I could and it is what it is,” he said.

For his part, the Flyers' Brayden Schenn downplayed the incident with the Penguins' Arron Asham, even though it could have been more serious.

"It was just a hit. I didn't really see him coming at me, I didn't really expect a cross-check but that's what happened,” he said.

As for the shot while he was on the ice, Schenn said, “That's just his temper rising, nothing more than that. Really nothing really more than a cross-check and a punch."

Did he think it was dirty?

“I didn't expect it, that's for sure,” Schenn said.
So what is more impressive: rookie Sean Couturier potting three goals and adding an assist, or the fact he continues to make life miserable for NHL regular-season scoring leader Evgeni Malkin?

Certainly Couturier's teammates were raving about his play.

“He played an unbelievable game, obviously," Claude Giroux offered. "He’s playing against one of the best players in the league and he’s been able to play pretty good."

Jaromir Jagr, a five-time NHL scoring champ himself, was left pretty much speechless.

“I don’t know if I know any words to describe this kid," Jagr said. "I don’t think in my hockey career I’ve seen anyone that good defensively at that age."

Couturier was the eighth overall pick in last year’s draft and at one point looked like he might be closer to No. 1. But the Flyers were sure pleased he slipped down to where they could nab him.

Couturier’s four-point night tied a franchise record for points by a rookie in a playoff game that was set exactly 27 years ago on this night by the late Peter Zezel.

Friday night marked the first time two Flyers have had a hat trick in the same playoff game. In fact, the last time the Flyers had two players record a hat trick in the same playoff year was the 1986-87 season.

Series numbers

  • This marks just the second time in Flyers history that they have won the first two games of a playoff series on the road. The first time was 1997 when they defeated Pittsburgh in five games. They have never lost a series when leading 2-0, going 17-0.
  • The Penguins, meanwhile, are 5-6 when they fall behind two games.
  • With two more assists in Game 2, Pascal Dupuis has now collected points in 19 straight games.
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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