Flyers

Doors open for Flyers' prospects as they close on Nick Schultz, Michael Del Zotto

Doors open for Flyers' prospects as they close on Nick Schultz, Michael Del Zotto

VOORHEES, N.J. -- Ron Hextall last month said the Flyers want to "get better every year, get younger every year."

They did not get better this season.

They did, however, take a step toward getting younger for next season when Nick Schultz and Michael Del Zotto left their exit interviews at Flyers Skate Zone.

To no surprise, the two blueliners strapped with expiring contracts were told on Tuesday they would not be re-signed this offseason.

Schultz turns 35 years old in August, while Del Zotto will be 27 in June. Both saw the writing on the wall with the Flyers' stable of defensive prospects not far from the NHL doorstep.

As the Flyers watch the playoffs for the third time in the last five seasons, Hextall will look to get younger, as promised.

"He thanked me for my time; I thanked him for the opportunity," Del Zotto said. "We both talked about which way the organization's going. I think it's no secret with what's happening here and we ended on that note."

Schultz, a veteran of 15 seasons (three with the Flyers) and contemplating retirement, had the same message.

"Obviously, I kind of know where I'm at -- contract's done and I know the young guys here in the system," Schultz said. "They are going to turn to those guys. Just kind of move on and move forward."

Del Zotto spent three seasons with the Flyers but was limited to 52 games in 2015-16 and 51 in 2016-17 because of injuries, which resulted in a shrunken role.

"It's unfortunate, a little emotional," he said. "I've been here for three years, have made some great friendships. Obviously, there was a little up and down and very frustrating at times. You understand the business and you learn that at a very young age. You see where this team's at -- a lot of young guys coming up on the back end."

This leaves two jobs for the taking on defense. Another could open, courtesy of the Vegas Golden Knights and the June expansion draft (i.e. Brandon Manning, Andrew MacDonald). The departures also loosen Hextall's pockets a bit. This season, Del Zotto carried a $3.875 million cap hit and Schultz $2.25 million.

So, who's in line for the vacancies?

We saw two auditions last week in the NHL debuts of 21-year-old Sam Morin and 22-year-old Robert Hagg. Both were drafted in 2013 and have developed at Hextall's preferred pace. Morin is 6-foot-7 and strong along the boards. Hagg possesses a sound two-way game with good size at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds. The pair owns a combined five seasons of experience at AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley.

"They're great players, they've got lots of talent down in the AHL," 20-year-old defenseman Ivan Provorov said. "They've got a great team. Hopefully they'll go deep in the playoffs. It'd be a good experience for them but it's definitely exciting -- we've got a great team here and lots of talent everywhere else, juniors and AHL."

Including Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers. Last summer, Hextall acclaimed Sanheim for his physical growth since being drafted in 2014. The 21-year-old is an offense-oriented defenseman who has put up 35 points (10 goals, 25 assists) in his first season with the Phantoms. Myers is only 20 years old and still playing at the junior ranks, but impressed greatly through training camp and preseason, when he stuck around longer than anticipated.

T.J. Brennan and Reece Willcox should be in the mix, as well, come fall.

What's prevalent is the Flyers will have options and competition for spots to join the likes of Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere, both budding in their own right.

"We've got [several] free agents this year, so we'll probably have a little bit of turnover," Wayne Simmonds said. "There's a lot of younger guys in Lehigh that are high on the radar and they're really good players. I'm expecting a lot of young kids to be coming up and things to change a little bit."

Schultz and Del Zotto were the start.

"When kids are younger now and growing up, they are training sooner and doing more at a young age," Schultz said. 

"Obviously there's a learning process playing in the NHL and playing a full 82-game season. It's a process, but it's something where those young guys are developing a lot quicker and are ready to play when they come in."

Sean Couturier pulls a Chris Pronger as Flyers force Game 6 with Penguins

Sean Couturier pulls a Chris Pronger as Flyers force Game 6 with Penguins

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PITTSBURGH — Whatever qualifies as the writing on the wall should probably be ignored when it comes to Flyers hockey.

A team that was humiliated and booed off home ice after it was outscored 10-1 in Games 3 and 4 had just about everything working against it during Friday night’s elimination game in Pittsburgh.

The eulogy had been drafted and all it needed was Sidney Crosby’s finishing touches in front of a sellout crowd of screaming, yellow towel-waving fans. The Penguins were ready to bury the bodies and move on to the next round.

“There’s a lot of commotions,” Sean Couturier said. “When s--- hits the fan and things start not going our way, you've got to kind of focus and stick together.”

Couturier was the catalyst in Friday’s 4-2 Game 5 victory (see observations). The Flyers' center knew not long after the morning skate, that regardless of his health, he was determined to play. Claude Giroux even conjured up the memory of an old teammate as additional incentive.

“I told him the story of (Chris) Pronger in Game 6 in Buffalo (2011), and he surprised us at 3:30 after our naps that he was going to be in,” Giroux said. “Before he went on the ice, I said, ‘You gonna pull a Prongs or what?’ And I told him the story and he texted me right after the morning skate and said, ‘I’m pulling a Prongs.’ So it was pretty funny.” 

Despite playing seven and a half minutes below his playoff average, Couturier gutted out nearly 17 minutes of ice time (nearly seven minutes on the penalty kill alone) and scored the game-winning goal with 1:15 remaining in regulation.

“Coots, what he did, he’s a warrior tonight and obviously our MVP,” Shayne Gostisbehere said. “Just him being out there, it’s huge for us. I think the penalty kill was phenomenal. I think they’re the real reason why he won that game.”

Valtteri Filppula’s shorthanded goal was arguably the turning point with the Penguins threatening to take a two-goal lead late in the second period. While one was left wondering about the Flyers' line combinations, head coach Dave Hakstol trusted Filppula enough to center the top line with Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

It was the 34-year-old center, not Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Giroux, who stepped up offensively in Game 5 with his most productive game as a Flyer, posting a goal and two assists.

“I don’t want to start ranking games and stuff like that, but Fil was good,” Hakstol said. “You've got to do that, especially at playoff time, when injuries are part of it. When your roll changes a little bit, you've got to step forward.”

And before the opening puck drop, it was Michal Neuvirth, not Brian Elliott, who led the team onto the ice. Neuvirth’s last start came in Colorado on March 28 and he hadn’t played a game in net from start to finish in over two months.

His glove save on Crosby inside the final minute sealed the Penguins' fate. 

“He looked great and looked really comfortable in there,” Couturier said. “He had to fight hard for a lot of pucks, and he made some big saves at the end and you can’t ask more from a goalie in the playoffs.”

The Flyers are now 60 minutes (and possibly more) away from forcing a winner-take-all Game 7. 

Two days ago, that was a scenario nobody could draw up.

Flyers force Game 6 with Penguins on Sean Couturier's late goal

Flyers force Game 6 with Penguins on Sean Couturier's late goal

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PITTSBURGH — After sitting out the previous game with a right leg injury, Sean Couturier scored the game-winning goal Friday with 1:15 remaining in regulation during the Flyers’ 4-2 Game 5 victory over the Penguins. The Flyers kept their postseason hopes alive as they cut the series deficit to 3-2.

Making his first start of the series, Michal Neuvirth came up with the save of the game when he robbed Sidney Crosby on a point-blank glove stop with 50 seconds left in the third period. 

Neuvirth denied 30 shots in the game.

Claude Giroux opened the scoring with his first goal of the playoff series and his first postseason goal since 2014, which gave the Flyers a 1-0 lead in the first period.

Playing on the top line with Giroux and Couturier for the first time this season, Valtteri Filppula scored his first goal in his last 16 playoff games that tied the game at 2-2 late in the second. Filppula had a three-point night with a goal and two assists.

Matt Read sealed the win with an empty-netter. 

Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust added goals for the Penguins.

Game 6 is scheduled for Sunday in Philadelphia (3 p.m./NBC).

• Despite suiting up and providing a gutsy effort, Couturier appeared to labor early while dealing with his leg injury. Early on, he didn’t have much power behind his shot and didn’t have much of a skating burst as he relied more on solid positional play. However, he seemed to get better as the game moved along. 

Apparently Couturier wasn’t healthy enough to play on the top line or on the No. 1 power-play unit, but he did receive his typical workload on the penalty kill.

• After the Flyers bottled up the Penguins in the first period, Pittsburgh adjusted its attack in the second. That led to easier offensive zone entries and a longer sustained attack in the Flyers’ zone. 

The Pens’ third line capitalized against the Flyers’ fourth line as Rust broke loose from Read and no one picked him up on the backside wraparound.

The Flyers were also held without a shot over 11½ of the second period. Offensive zone time was 4:10 for Pittsburgh to 45 seconds for the Flyers in the second period.

• Neuvirth appeared to have the post covered, but apparently Rust was still able to pop it up and over the goalie’s blade. Regardless, a bad goal. 

Later in the second period, Neuvirth allowed another goal that he should have stopped as Guentzel snapped a shot that slipped between his legs. 

Overall, Neuvirth made some key saves early and on the Penguins’ power play to offset the goals.

• Regardless of the outcome, the Flyers gave Pittsburgh their most physical effort in this seres. They battled for loose pucks and made some of the Pens’ most skilled players, primarily Evgeni Malkin, fight for their possessions. 

Brandon Manning got in Malkin’s face and Radko Gudas came to the defense of Giroux when he fought Jamie Oleksiak after his incidental contact.    

• Despite some concerns that Filppula couldn’t handle the responsibilities as a top-line center, No. 51 was arguably one of the Flyers’ best forwards. Filppula scored shorthanded, played a near perfect first period and provided solid defensive play. He also led the Flyers with four shots on goal.