Flyers

Questionable calls, challenge lead to Flyers' 'frustrating' loss to Predators

Questionable calls, challenge lead to Flyers' 'frustrating' loss to Predators

BOX SCORE

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Bags tossed. Doors slammed. Players cursing. A frustration this team hasn’t experienced in a long, long time. 

Without question, Tuesday’s 6-5 loss to the Nashville Predators was a game the Flyers felt wasn’t lost but simply taken away from them (see observations).

Or perhaps not.

“Oh, we gave it away. I don’t think anybody took it,” goaltender Brian Elliott said. “That’s why it’s frustrating.”

Some Flyers were still searching for answers.

“Honestly, it feels like we won. It’s weird right now,” defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. “I’m not sure if that’s ever happened to me in my life — that type of game like that.”

Considering the implementation of rule 78.7 (b), approved by the NHL’s Board of Governors just a week before the start of the season, a game like this has never happened in the history of the league, and probably nowhere ever in the game of hockey.

The rule stems from a coach’s challenge on an offside play and states, “If the result of the challenge is that the play was ‘on-side,’ the goal shall count and the team that issued the challenge shall be assessed a minor penalty for delaying the game.”

After former Flyer Scott Hartnell took advantage of a 5-on-3 chance and tied an already wild game at 5-5 with 1:17 remaining, Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol elected to challenge the zone entry of the play. Replays showed that Filip Forsberg was able to get one skate over the blue line before the puck cleared. However, replays were inconclusive whether Hartnell’s skates were completely over the line as the linesman appeared to be staring down at Forsberg and was paying no attention to Hartnell, who was right there next to him (see video).

“That’s my call,” Hakstol said on the decision to challenge. "Absolutely it’s worth it, but it wasn’t overturned, so it wasn’t the right call. I don’t want to get into the details of it."

Hakstol said he was surprised it wasn't overturned, but also knew if he lost the challenge that the Flyers would be faced with killing another 5-on-3 power play for 1:22. 

That is precisely what happened when Hartnell’s goal stood. The Flyers killed off the remainder of the two-man advantage only to have Filip Forsberg score the game-winner just five seconds into the coach’s challenge penalty, which was a 5-on-4 (see highlights).

“It happens so quick. You’re getting the feeds on the bench when you’re getting them, and 15, 20 seconds to make a decision,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. “I give him credit. He’s trying to help his team any way he can. You’re going to get caught in those situations. We all are. Everybody’s going to get caught in them. 

“To be honest, I didn’t get a good look at it. We actually talked about it in the coach’s office. Those decisions are tough, and a lot of people said they would go for it. You’ve got to live by the sword and die by the sword.”

Prior to that, one can seriously debate the series of events that led to Nashville’s initial 5-on-3 power play as the Flyers were whistled for a pair of minor penalties with 2:41 remaining in the game leading, 5-4.

First, left winger Dale Weise was whistled for holding as he attempted to chase down the puck in the offensive zone. Then, as the Flyers gained possession of the puck, defenseman Andrew MacDonald was called for tripping.

“The last 10 minutes it seems they were putting the whistles away and letting the boys play,” Weise said. “I don’t know about make-up calls, but on my penalty I’m trying to swim past my guy. That happens 20 times a game and you don’t call a penalty on that. It’s just really frustrating.”

“The guy coming in on me, he crossed over and I put my stick over and he stepped on it and they called me too,” MacDonald said.

Until those two-minute minor penalties, the Flyers had played a very disciplined game. Their only penalty kill came early in the first period when Craig Smith scored Nashville's first goal. 

There was an awareness among the Flyers that calls would likely not go their way at some point in the third period.  

“Obviously, we were aware. It’s tough when you get two in one shot like that, that late in the game,” MacDonald said. “It happened and it was unfortunate. It’s something that we would have liked to kill and have gotten a big character win here, but unfortunately it was out of our hands.”

The series of unfortunate circumstances for the Flyers and the bogus new rule change, which I wrote about during the preseason, negated what could have been a tremendous comeback.

After going down, 3-0, the Flyers scored five unanswered goals, including three in a second-period span of 4:46. Valtteri Filppula scored his second goal of the game with 13:12 remaining in regulation to give the Flyers a 5-3 lead at the time.

“There’s a ton of character in that room,” Hakstol said. “We got down 3-0, but we were playing well. I didn’t feel like other than the first five minutes we weren’t back on our heels. We knew there would be a big push to start this hockey game with the energy they had in the building.”

"It says a lot about our group, how we did come back,” Gostisbehere said. "Going down 3-0 in a building like this, coming back to 5-3. It’s an unfortunate series of events there. There’s a lot of positives we can take away from this game.”

All of which had the lyrical makings of a country song straight out of Nashville’s Music Row. Now it’s up to the Flyers to change their tune in time for Saturday’s home opener against the Washington Capitals.

At this point, Brandon Manning appears to have advantage over Travis Sanheim

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At this point, Brandon Manning appears to have advantage over Travis Sanheim

Brandon Manning won’t have to wait another 10 days for his shot in the lineup.

Manning was paired with Radko Gudas during Monday’s practice while Travis Sanheim put in extra work, suggesting that Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol will lean on the Manning-Gudas combination as his third pairing for Tuesday’s game against the visiting Florida Panthers.  

“To be honest, I think I have good chemistry with both guys, “Gudas said. “Playing with Manning, I’m a little more used to it. We played together for awhile the last two years. It’s a little more that we know each other already. And with Travis, he’s getting better every game he plays. It was fun playing with him and we’re getting used to each other.”

Manning started the season as the sixth defenseman in San Jose and was surprised his number wasn’t called again until the home opener this past Saturday.

“You start off the first game of the season and you pick up the win. To come out of the lineup is obviously tough,” Manning said, “I understand the situation. I understand the direction the team’s going, the value of the young kids and their development. You look at the Washington game and it’s a bit of a blowout. But after sitting around for 10 days, I felt pretty good out there. It’s a home opener so it’s an easy game to get up for.”

Manning can see the writing on the wall. Sanheim, Robert Hagg and Samuel Morin are the future of the Flyers' defense. On a handful of other teams, including the Capitals team the Flyers demolished on Saturday, around the league, Manning would be a mainstay on the blue line.

The numbers back up Hakstol’s thought process. Through the first five games this season, the Flyers are 2-0 with a plus-8 goal differential with Manning in the lineup, compared to the games Sanheim has played, where the Flyers are 1-2 and a minus-2 differential. With Sanheim, the Flyers' even-strength save percentage is 73.3 percent (last on the team) compared to that of Manning’s 88.9 percent, which is currently ranked fifth out of the seven Flyers defensemen.

“I think Travis has played well,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I think his play in games and his practices have been good. We're trying to build our lineup each night to what we think gives us the best opportunity to win that night. Travis’s play has been good and I’ve been very happy with his performance.”

It's not unexpected that Manning has served as the Flyers' steadier option in the opening month as Sanheim continues to acclimate himself to the NHL game, which has come at a different speed than the level of play during the preseason.

“That’s part of being professional,” Manning said. “That’s something I’ve learned in my couple of years here in the NHL. The situations I’ve been in, I think it’s all about how you react and how you handle them. You can sit there and be pissed off about it, but at the end of the day, there’s going to be decisions that [GM Ron Hextall] and Hak make that you can’t control. What you can control is how hard you work in practice and how well you play, and you prepare for those situations you’re going to be in.”

It’s a unique paradox right now. The Flyers need wins and Sanheim needs to play. At some point this season, everyone’s needs will be met.

Flyers finding their top-line center and 'Answer' in Sean Couturier

Flyers finding their top-line center and 'Answer' in Sean Couturier

Can Philadelphia accept two Answers?

The nickname so passionately attached to superstar Hall-of-Famer Allen Iverson, who had a bulldog tattooed on his left arm with “The Answer” inscription above it, has now been adopted by the Flyers for their top-line center Sean Couturier, but for far different reasons.

“We call him ‘The Answer’ because we feel he always has the answer for whatever you say,” linemate Jake Voracek said, “We just make fun of him a lot.”

While players and media members were digging for the answer to a certain trivia question following Monday’s practice, Claude Giroux looked around for Couturier’s “wisdom” since, as the captain jokingly put it, “he knows everything,” including all the rules to whatever games the team plays on road trips.

However if the question posed coming into this season was about how to get Voracek and Giroux back to playing at an elite level again, especially at even strength? Well, Couturier has been that answer.

“100 percent, 100 percent,” Voracek said, “He’s a very responsible guy that plays very good on both sides of the puck and it shows. He creates more space for me and 'G' to go in the offense and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Saturday against the Capitals, the line of Giroux-Couturier-Voracek resembled something from the Legion of Doom era. After a pair of lackluster shifts to begin the game, the trio quickly shifted into overdrive and took over the game as they combined for four goals, six assists and a plus-10 rating against the top-ranked defensive team from last season.

Couturier scored twice against the Caps, including the game's opening tally, when he finished off a slick passing play between him, Voracek and Giroux by slamming home a rebound. He now has three goals and three assists on the young season through six games with his new linemates.

“I think they can bring a lot to my game and I can bring something to their game,” Couturier said, “So far, it’s been working pretty good. I think we still can get better — have more of a shooting mentality. My minutes aren’t changing. The quality of players I’m playing with are. Playing with two great guys, two great players.”

If the organizational philosophy was to establish a better 5-on-5, even-strength presence by inserting Couturier as the top-line center, then the Flyers came to the right place. In the last 24 games he's played dating back to last season, Couturier has eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points. Couturier is a whopping plus-27 over his last 26 games dating back to February 28th of last season. He not only leads the NHL by a wide margin but also does so by a wide margin:

Plus/minus leaders since Feb. 28
Sean Couturier (PHI) - +27
Jaden Schwartz (STL) - +15
Five players at +14

“It’s nice. I try to take pride in being a solid 200-foot player,” Couturier said, “I’m reliable defensively and offensively I can produce and help out, and so far, it’s been clicking. As much as they can bring a lot to me, I think I can bring a lot to their 5-on-5 game here.”

In a game where speed, skill and shot-creating ability are the dominant traits for a top-line center, Couturier is unique in that he doesn’t possess those exceptional attributes. He’s in sound position, defensively responsible and, when provided with skilled wingers, can generate occasional offense as a result of strong puck possession. If you’re looking for another No. 1 center with a similar game, then perhaps Carolina’s Jordan Staal would serve as Couturier’s closest comparison.

In the two-plus seasons he’s been in Philadelphia, head coach Dave Hakstol has seen steady improvement out of Couturier. “I think he just continues to grow as a player,” Hakstol said. “He’s got a lot of games played in the league no question, so he’s very much a veteran in that sense. I think he’s continued to improve his faceoffs. That’s one area where I think he’s continued to improve and has done a very good job, and I know he’s hungry offensively.”    

From the moment Couturier was drafted eighth overall in 2011 following back-to-back 96-point seasons with an average of nearly 40 goals a year in the QMJHL, the Flyers anticipated having a bonafide goal-scorer on their hands for years to come. However, those numbers should have been locked up in a time capsule and buried in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center because Couturier was never asked to be that type of player.

Until Nolan Patrick arrived on the scene, Couturier was the last Flyer to earn a spot on the team in the same year he was drafted. Like most 18-year-olds who show up for boot camp, Couturier never questioned his assignments and took whatever duties and responsibilities he was given with an understood, “Sir, yes sir” approach, but in the back of his mind, he was always capable of so much more.

“I always believed I could produce offensively at this level, but it was more just the situations I was put in I think,” said Couturier, who began his NHL career as a fourth-line checking center, “Coming into the league, there wasn’t much room for me in the top six or top nine. I was taking whatever role I could to help the team and I think I did pretty good in a shutdown role.

“It did get pretty frustrating at times. People see you as a shutdown guy. That can be most frustrating at times. I don’t want to complain about ice time and stuff, but like I say, it’s always been the situation I’ve been put in.”

Now Sean Couturier finds himself in a situation even Philadelphia’s original “Answer” could envy.

The opportunity to score more working alongside a very high-caliber supporting cast.