Flyers

900 games is a lot, but Hartnell isn't satisfied

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900 games is a lot, but Hartnell isn't satisfied

DALLAS -- Not many hockey players can say this, but Scott Hartnell can.

His first two NHL games were in Tokyo, Japan. They counted in the standings, too.

“I don’t think many people even know that,” Hartnell said. “We started against Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr and those [Pittsburgh] guys in Japan, which was really cool.”

Come Saturday, that will have happened 900 career NHL games ago when Hartnell takes the ice against the Stars.

“It’s amazing how time flies,” Hartnell said. “It’s been an unbelievable journey. A lot of great stories, a lot of great times. We live a great life to play this game we love.”

Quick, what comes to mind first among memories?

Because Hartnell was from Regina, Saskatchewan, the first time he went to Edmonton, he had to pony up with tickets. Twenty-five for his relatives and friends.

“That was a neat trip to Edmonton,” he recalled.

What next?

“Signing in Philadelphia was a treat and this great organization,” he replied without hesitation. “The whole Stanley Cup run in 2010. Coming back against Boston. That was definitely in my top five, for sure.”

Hartnell knew this milestone was approaching. He saw it in the media notes. He’s spent 13 years in the NHL -- seven with the Flyers.

“It’s gone very quickly,” he said. “We just finished up in Nashville where it all started for me. That brought back memories. Six or seven years, I was there. I’ve been in Philly longer than I had been in Nashville.”

It would have been cool to have played No. 900 in Music City. Or even at the Wells Fargo Center, but oftentimes milestones such as these occur on the road.

“I look back and remember I was sick one game at age 18,” he said. “A healthy scratch once at 21. Couple injuries here and there. It is what it is.

“Kimmo [Timonen] played his 1,000th last year on his birthday. I don’t think that has ever happened.”

Indeed, Timonen’s milestone came on March 18 in Tampa Bay.

“We started a long way ago,” Timonen said. “In 2000 … we became friends right away and roommates. We’re really tight buddies right now.”

Look around the NHL and you see the Sedin twins playing together for one team only. You see Patrik Elias and Marty Brodeur in New Jersey and you have Hartnell and Timonen, not with one club but two.

“I don’t think there is a couple who played on two different teams,” Timonen said. “I’m happy to see him get 900.”

Hartnell and Timonen came to the Flyers in an offseason trade in 2007. Hartnell has spent all 900 games playing with Timonen.

“That doesn’t happen very often,” Hartnell said. “He’s my best friend. This could be his last year. We talk about being on the road and seeing cool cities and when will ever go back to Nashville and play them again.

“It’s a pretty cool milestone for me, obviously. A thousand games would be even more special. I’ve played a lot of games in this league trying to win a Stanley Cup and we haven’t been able to do that. Games are fun, but it counts when you get into the playoffs and play for the Cup.”

Incidentally, he has another milestone coming up, as well. Hartnell needs four points for 500 in his career.

At 31, he openly admits that he realizes that the only thing that matters at this stage of his career is winning a Cup.

Which is why Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals still lingers like a bad dream that won’t ever go away.

Patrick Kane’s short-side goal clinched the Cup for the Chicago Blackhawks in overtime.

“That game is still crushing to me,” Hartnell said, trying to laugh it off when you know inside he was crying.

He’s not the first immensely popular Flyer to feel that pain.

In 2004, when Ken Hitchcock’s Flyers lost Game 7 at Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Finals, Jeremy Roenick, banged up and concussed, wobbled out of the trainer’s room and sobbed.

“We came so close and I’ll probably never get another chance,” Roenick said at the time.

It was devastating. Roenick was right. He never got another shot.

Hartnell wonders whether 2010 will be as close as he ever gets.

“You walk the hallways of Detroit and see those Stanley Cup teams and how great this team has been since the NHL started,” Hartnell said, referring to the outside walls in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena where the dressing rooms are.

Detroit’s Cup years and players' names are painted on the walls.

“To have your name up on a wall and be remembered forever is pretty neat,” Hartnell said. “The money is great, the fame, and everything that comes along with hockey, but if you don’t win a Stanley Cup, there is something missing from the whole deal.

“I’ve come to realize that in the last few years. The Cup is what it is all about. It’s not about scoring goals. It’s about winning it. That’s the bottom line.”

One thing saddens Hartnell. Timonen has talked of this being his last year in the league.

“We’re trying to make this a great year for him,” Hartnell said. “And obviously, a great year would be to win the Cup. We’ve got a lot of work to do and games to win between now and then.”

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

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

VOORHEES, N.J. — 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 in which 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,” 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' 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

VOORHEES, N.J. — 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 Jakub 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 play 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.

“One hundred 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 it 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 five 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 Feb. 28 of last season. Not only does he lead the NHL by a wide margin, but as the chart suggests, no one else is even close to Couturier's dominance:

Plus/minus leaders since Feb. 28

1. Sean Couturier (PHI) +27
2. Jaden Schwartz (STL) +15
2. David Savard (CBJ)
2. Brett Pesce (CAR)
5. 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 bona-fide 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 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.