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.

Best of NHL: Islanders shut down Capitals to snap 5-game skid

USA Today Images

Best of NHL: Islanders shut down Capitals to snap 5-game skid

NEW YORK -- Jaroslav Halak made 31 saves after getting a vote of confidence from his coach, and the New York Islanders beat the Washington Capitals 3-1 on Monday night to snap a five-game winless streak.

Brock Nelson, Andrew Ladd and John Tavares scored goals for the Islanders, who built a 3-0 lead early in the second period and ended Washington's four-game winning streak.

It was the second time this season that Halak held an opponent to a single goal and the third time New York has allowed one goal as a team. Halak's strong performance came after coach Doug Weight sternly defended his goaltenders following the team's skate Monday morning. New York was 0-3-2 over its last five games.

Braden Holtby made nine saves for the Capitals before being pulled after the Islanders scored their third goal 1:34 into the second period. Philipp Grubauer made 17 saves in relief, and Dmitry Orlov scored Washington's only goal (see full recap).

Bernier makes 39 saves as Avalanche top Penguins
PITTSBURGH -- Jonathan Bernier stopped 39 shots and Mark Barberio scored in the third period, helping the Colorado Avalanche top the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 on Monday night.

Blake Comeau added an empty netter against his former team as Colorado won its second straight after a string of six losses in seven games. It was Comeau's seventh of the season.

Barberio put the Avalanche ahead to stay 6:17 into the third. His slap shot off the rush hit Pittsburgh forward Riley Sheahan in front and got past goaltender Tristan Jarry.

Bernier was on track for his second shutout of the season before Phil Kessel scored his 15th goal for Pittsburgh at 19:48. Bernier beat the Penguins for just the second time in 10 career games (see full recap).

Perreault, Jets beat Canucks to snap skid
WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Mathieu Perreault scored two goals and added an assist to help the Winnipeg Jets halt a three-game losing streak with a 5-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night.

The win was the Jets' seventh straight victory at home and they have points in their last 11 games (10-0-1) at Bell MTS Place.

The Canucks have lost three straight in regulation for the first time this season.

Dmitry Kulikov, Josh Morrissey and Nikolaj Ehlers also scored for Winnipeg (18-8-5). Ehlers' 14th of the season was on the power play and gave him goals in three straight games.

Brock Boeser scored his team-leading 16th goal for the Canucks. He also extended his goal-scoring streak to three games.

Connor Hellebuyck made 25 saves for Winnipeg (see full recap).

Flyers notes, quotes and tidbits: Reversing home fortunes

Flyers notes, quotes and tidbits: Reversing home fortunes

VOORHEES, N.J. — Home is where the _____.

For the Flyers, filling in this blank hasn’t solicited positive responses this season.

Of course, the Flyers haven’t provided positive results.

After trouncing the Capitals and Panthers in their first two home games of the season, the Flyers have dropped 10 of their last 12 in South Philly. They gifted the Arizona Coyotes their first win of the season back in late October and have turned in lethargic efforts against the Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks and Boston Bruins in recent weeks.

More alarmingly, the Flyers have just a 1-2-5 record in one-goal games, a situation in which home ice should come into play as one of the deciding factors. The losing and frustration culminated with a barrage of boos and a “Fire Hakstol” chant during that 3-1 loss to the Sharks on Nov. 28.

“It doesn’t help, but we’re not doing anything to help ourselves,” goaltender Brian Elliott said Monday. “You’re trying not to listen to any crowd. You’re just trying to block it all out and stay in that moment, just playing with your team out there, and that’s probably how I approach it. It’s taking that road style hockey game and bringing it here.” 

“I think the atmosphere will be better,” Sean Couturier said. “When you’re losing, it’s tough. We were trying so hard to get a win. It didn’t seem to come, and then finally to get one, two and then three. We’re kind of on a roll, but at the same time, it’s only three games. We’re pretty excited to be back home and keep winning.”  

Tuesday, the team will be looking to change its Wells Fargo Center fortunes when it opens up another five-game homestand, its longest of the season, beginning with a visit from the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Flyers are hopeful they can carry over their success from a three-game sweep in Western Canada when the Leafs hit town. 

“We keep it simple on the road. We went on the road and made a pact to keep it simple and play the right way,” Wayne Simmonds said. “We’ve had one of the best home records over the past three years. I think we do alright at home. Obviously, we’ve had a slow start at home, but we’ll pick it up.”

Not that the previous 14 home games have been irrelevant, but the final 27 games on home ice will have a much greater emphasis as 23 of their final 28 games come against Eastern Conference opponents, with 12 of those directly within the Metropolitan Division.

“From now on, games are going to get more and more important,” Couturier said. “Every point is pretty much necessary for us, especially when you lose 10 games in a row. You get behind in the standings and you’re chasing. We've got to stick together and get some more wins.”

'Ghost' feels for Wentz
Shayne Gostisbehere knows what it's like to wake up the way Carson Wentz did on Monday morning.

Wentz tore the ACL in his left knee during Sunday’s 43-35 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. 

In November 2014, Gostisbehere tore the same ACL in his knee during his rookie season with the Phantoms just five games in and never returned to action. Faced with months of rehab, there were moments when "Ghost" didn’t feel as if the injury was improving.   

“I saw the game yesterday,” Gostisbehere said. “I hope for the best for him. The rehab is really grueling. It's ups and downs. Some days you’re going to feel great, feel like you’re getting ahead of the game, and other days you feel you’re never going to get better. I think overall he’s going to have the best care in the world. I think obviously you hope for the best and hope it’s not that bad.”

Elliott named third star
Flyers goaltender Brian Elliott was named the NHL’s third star of the week after posting three road wins with a 1.67 goals-against average and .954 save percentage.

“It’s great when you get recognized,” Elliott said. “Whenever you get those recognitions as a goalie, it really shows how the group has been playing, especially this last week here. It’s probably my name up there, but definitely the whole team deserves that.”