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.