Flyers

Sean Couturier's dominance hiding Flyers' depth problem

Sean Couturier's dominance hiding Flyers' depth problem

It was a scene not often portrayed in the Flyers' locker room. There, Sean Couturier stood Thursday night, in the middle of a pack of reporters with little room to breathe. The mob broke from a goalie who turned in his best performance as a Flyer to swarm him. Part of the pack partially departed from Couturier momentarily to chat with Shayne Gostisbehere, the fastest Flyers defenseman to reach 100 points. Then it moved on to Radko Gudas.

What started as a large flock dwindled to a small gathering, but there was no doubt. Couturier was the star of the show. In the end, after about 10 minutes, which is an eternity for postgame interviews, Couturier was the last man standing.

“I’m getting the chance to do what I can do offensively,” Couturier said.

That was all Couturier ever needed, a chance. He's received just that this season. In the Flyers' 3-1 win Thursday over the Blackhawks, Couturier again was the catalyst that carried the Flyers' top line that has Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek on his wings.

Couturier potted his 10th goal of the season in what has been prototypical fashion. As the Flyers’ top unit entered the Chicago zone, Couturier split Blackhawks defensemen Duncan Keith and Jan Rutta and crashed the net. Giroux fed Couturier with a backhanded pass, and the seventh-year centerman rammed home an easy marker.

It was Couturier's only point of the night, but the Flyers' top line produced all three goals. While it doesn't show in the box score, Couturier was front and center for both Giroux's and Voracek's goals. In the first period, Couturier pressured Patrick Sharp at the Chicago blue line, which allowed Voracek to get the puck and feed Giroux for a one-timer.

About eight minutes later, Couturier showed incredible balance, staying on his skates after being tripped by Cody Franson, then one-handing a pass cross-ice to Voracek. The sequence kept the play alive and it later led to Voracek's fourth of the season.

With a three-point night from both Giroux and Voracek and Couturier's goal, the Flyers' top line again proved elite. The trio, through 16 games, has combined for 48 even-strength points. Overall, the three have 60 combined points. Couturier is tied with Tampa's Nikita Kucherov and St. Louis' Jaden Schwartz for the NHL lead with 18 even-strength points. Giroux and Voracek are tied for fourth with Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau with 15 even-strength points.

The unit is on pace to produce 97 even-strength goals — that won't happen — but it's establishing itself as one of the league's top lines. There is a real threat of the three scoring every time they're on the ice.

"There [are] three good players on that line," Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. "They're all different. They play the game differently. They have different elements, different strengths, but the three of them together — to a big credit to them — has worked well."

For as much fanfare as the Couturier line has received, there is an underlying concern with the Flyers. They're not receiving secondary scoring from their middle six.

Since Nolan Patrick left the Anaheim game Oct. 24, the Flyers have tallied 18 even-strength goals with 11 of them coming from the Couturier line. Travis Konecny, Valtteri Filppula and Dale Weise each have one, while the defense has three.

Patrick will miss his eighth straight game Saturday against Minnesota with a head injury he suffered 18 days ago. The Flyers have officially designated Patrick’s injury as “upper body,” and he remains “day to day.” He could return as early as Tuesday.

The lack of transparency with Patrick's injury is a story for another day. At this point, we should not expect the Flyers or any other team to disclose specific injuries. Some do, others don't. It's a hockey thing rooted deep in the culture.

"It's taken longer than we thought, certainly hope," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said Thursday. "But he skated (Thursday) and everything went good and worked out. Now it's a matter of starting to ramp him up. You just can't go from zero to 60, it's gotta be zero to 20 and then up."

Taking Patrick, 19, out of the lineup changes the complexion of the Flyers' forward group. With Patrick, the Flyers have four lines with skill on each one. We know about the first line, and the fourth line has stayed intact since training camp.

The middle six has been virtually nonexistent. An argument could be made it has been all season even with Patrick — he has just three points in nine games — but it's been more noticeable without him in the lineup.

Wayne Simmonds, after a torrid start, hasn't scored in eight games. He has been banged up and perhaps a little more than he's led on. Jordan Weal has one goal in his last 13 games. Filppula has two goals since Patrick's injury, one at even strength. And while Konecny continues to get chances — he had a few prime opportunities against the Blackhawks — he has just two goals in 16 games.

"Personally, I have to bear down a little bit more," Konecny, who replaced Weal on the second line, said earlier this week. "I probably have some of the most 2-on-1s, just scoring chances, and I need to bear down a little bit more and capitalize on a few of them."

After Thursday's win, the Flyers are now 8-6-2 in 16 games and 3-3-2 in their last eight games. In the standings, it's been a mediocre start, but it doesn't feel that way.

The Flyers are a better team than they were last season, at least by the eye test. Injuries and bad luck have cost them a few wins. That's hockey.

So far, the Couturier line has carried the Flyers. They've been looking for a top line for years, and they've now found one. The problem is, the middle six isn't producing.

That has to change and quick.

Pekka Rinne notches milestone in Predators' rout

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Pekka Rinne notches milestone in Predators' rout

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Pekka Rinne made 33 saves in his 300th career win and the Nashville Predators routed the San Jose Sharks 7-1 on Thursday night.

Nick Bonino, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson each had a goal and an assist, and Scott Hartnell, Kevin Fiala and Mattias Ekholm also scored for Nashville, which has won three straight. The Predators moved within one point of expansion Vegas for the Western Conference lead.

Nashville defensemen Roman Josi and P.K. Subban each had two assists.

All of Rinne's wins have come with Nashville. He tied former Predators goalie Tomas Vokoun for 33rd place in NHL history.

Logan Couture had the San Jose goal. The loss snapped the Sharks' three-game winning streak (see full recap).

Wild use big 2nd period to top Devils
NEWARK, N.J. -- Joel Eriksson Ek and Chris Stewart scored in a 39-second span during Minnesota's three-goal second period, and the Wild rallied from two down to beat the New Jersey Devils 4-2 on Thursday night.

Wild defenseman Mike Reilly also scored in the second period and Eric Staal iced the game with an empty-net goal, his 900th NHL point. Backup goalie Alex Stalock made 38 saves as the Wild moved into third place in the Central Division after winning for the 11th time in 17 games (11-3-3).

Taylor Hall and Stefan Noesen scored for the Devils, who have lost two in a row after a four-game winning streak. Eddie Lack made 21 saves.

Hall's 13-game point streak is the longest in NHL this season, one more than David Pastrnak of Boston.

Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau made the right moves in this one, inserting Reilly and Stewart into the lineup and electing to give No. 1 goaltender Devan Dubnyk a night off (see full recap).

Matthews exits Maple Leafs’ SO victory with injury
TORONTO -- Tyler Bozak scored the shootout winner and the Toronto Maple Leafs edged the New York Islanders 4-3 on Thursday night.

Auston Matthews tipped in Jake Gardiner's shot to tie it 3-all with 3:29 remaining in the third period, but later left the game favoring his right side after taking a hit from Cal Clutterbuck and did not return. The 20-year-old Toronto star missed six games in December with a concussion and another four games with an undisclosed upper-body injury.

Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly had the other Maple Leafs goals, and Frederik Andersen made 32 saves. Toronto (38-20-5) has won eight straight at home.

Ryan Pulock, Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle scored for the Islanders (29-26-7), and Jaroslav Halak turned aside 28 shots. New York, one point out of a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, dropped to 4-6-2 since the All-Star break and 13-15-3 on the road this season.

With his three points, Barzal has a team-leading 65 and a 14-point lead over Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks in the NHL's rookie scoring race (see full recap).

Here comes Nolan Patrick, just in time for Flyers

Here comes Nolan Patrick, just in time for Flyers

BOX SCORE

When Dave Hakstol was hired on May 18, 2015, to become the 19th head coach of the Flyers, there was an underlying belief that given his collegiate pedigree, Hakstol was the perfect bench boss to handle the team's homegrown prospects.

However, as we’ve seen over the course of three seasons, the progression of a young player doesn’t always continue on an upward trajectory from the moment they start their NHL career.

As he juggles a roster that is now the youngest in the Eastern Conference following injuries to Brian Elliott and Wayne Simmonds, Hakstol appears to be pushing all of the right buttons, including those connected with the organization’s most prized prospect, Nolan Patrick.

Thursday night’s 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets further exemplified that as Patrick scored a power-play goal in his second straight game (see observations). With the injury to Simmonds, Hakstol believed Patrick could slide seamlessly into Simmonds' net-front role on the top unit, and the rookie has yet to disappoint his coach or teammates.

“I think there’s a little less pressure,” Patrick said. “You don’t have the puck on your stick as much. I think my shots are something I need to improve on. It’s kind of nice for me to be there and not try and beat goalies with my shots. I like it there.”

Hakstol recognized early in the opening month of the season that Patrick wasn’t quite ready to handle the role of being a top-six forward, but over the course of an 82-game season, he has gradually given the 19-year-old center more responsibility and Patrick has proved he’s deserving of the coach’s trust.

“His approach, his hockey sense and his intelligence is what gives him an opportunity to be successful in any situation,” Hakstol said. “Each time we’ve been able to give him more of an opportunity, he’s taken advantage of that. Nolan is doing a lot of those little things on a nightly basis — up and down the middle of the rink, playing a good 200-foot game, and the fact he’s taken pride in that is the foundation of his game.”

“He’s been great,” Patrick said of Hakstol. “When I first got here, they made me work for everything. They didn’t put me in situations I wasn’t ready for. Even now, when I’m not playing great, he does what’s best for the team. He’ll hold me back or not put me out there when I’m struggling on faceoffs. He notices that and he’s been huge for me.”

And Patrick has been huge for the Flyers. He’s now scored a goal in three straight games. 

You’re never quite sure when the future will eventually catch up to the present, but with the help of his head coach, it’s coming at just the right time for Nolan Patrick.