Flyers

Flyers-Maple Leafs: 5 things you need to know

flyers-mapleleafs-matchup.jpg

Flyers-Maple Leafs: 5 things you need to know

The Flyers (33-24-6) will try to stay hot when they clash with the Toronto Maple Leafs (33-23-8) on Saturday night.

Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. (CSN) at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

Here are five things you need to know:

1. Follow the leaders
If you’re trying to figure out why the Flyers have won three in a row and seven of their last eight, look no further than the team’s top two offensive threats.

Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek didn’t get off to a great start this season, but the Flyers’ leading-scoring tandem from a season ago has carried the team as of late.

Giroux has nine goals and nine assists over his last 11 games and is now over a point-per-game pace this season. The Flyers’ captain leads the team in goals (23), assists (41) and points (64), and has been a dominant presence in the offensive zone, consistently winning puck battles and creating quality chances.

Voracek seems to be finding his scoring touch after a bit of a dry spell. After registering just one goal during a 12-game stretch, the 24-year-old has found the back of the net three times in his last two contests. What’s even more encouraging is Voracek is shooting the puck more. He tends to a have a pass-first mindset at times, which isn’t always a bad thing, but the Flyers need him to fire away. Voracek is a natural goal scorer. The only way to prove that is to get shots on net.

If the Flyers want to stay in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, they’ll need Giroux and Voracek to continue to lead the way. They are 17-2-1 when Giroux scores and 10-2-2 when Voracek gets in the goal column.

2. Out for revenge
In the only previous meeting between these two clubs this season, the Maple Leafs walked out of Wells Fargo Center with a 3-1 win over the Flyers on Oct. 2.

Dave Bolland scored twice for the Leafs that night and Phil Kessel also beat Steve Mason, who made 22 saves in a losing effort. Brayden Schenn potted the Flyers’ lone marker on Jonathan Bernier, who turned aside 31 of 32 shots fired his way.

The Flyers will be searching for revenge north of the border. Toronto has taken three of its last four contests against the Flyers overall, but has lost six of seven to the orange and black on home ice.

The Leafs have also struggled on the man advantage as of late. They snapped a three-game losing streak by beating the New York Rangers 3-2 in overtime on Wednesday, but failed to score a power-play goal for the seventh consecutive game.

That doesn’t mean the Flyers should take the Leafs lightly. Toronto is one of the NHL’s best teams on the PP, scoring on 21.0 percent of its chances. It’s also worth mentioning the Flyers allowed three goals while shorthanded in Wednesday’s 6-4 win over the Washington Capitals.

3. Catching up
Since the Flyers are playing the Leafs, the James van Riemsdyk-Luke Schenn trade is bound to come up at some point.

So how’s JVR doing up north? The Middletown, N.J. native has already hit career highs in goals (26) and assists (26) this season, and trails only Kessel for the team lead in points.

It’s hard to compare stats between forwards and defensemen, especially in this case. Everyone knows JVR has the ability to light the lamp, and Schenn is a physical, shutdown blueliner who will block shots and pile up hits.

Schenn has taken his lumps this season, but has rebounded as of late. He was paired with new Flyer Andrew MacDonald on Wednesday and had a strong game.

But nearly two seasons since the trade, it’s clear the Leafs have gotten more from van Riemsdyk than the Flyers have from Schenn. Let's leave it at that.

4. Injuries
Backup goalie Ray Emery remains sidelined with a lower-body injury. He hasn’t been able to play or practice since exiting the Flyers’ loss to the San Jose Sharks on Feb. 27. Emery did not travel with the team to Toronto, so Cal Heeter will continue to serve as Mason’s backup.

For Toronto, Bolland (ankle) is on injured reserve and remains out indefinitely. It’s been a difficult season for the first-year Maple Leaf. He’s been productive -- six goals and four assists -- but injuries have limited the centerman to just 15 games.

Enforcer Colton Orr, who has not played since Feb. 4 against the Florida Panthers, is questionable for Saturday’s game with an undisclosed injury.

5. This and that
• The Flyers are 19-0-2 this season when scoring four or more goals.

• Kessel is averaging 1.09 points per game this season, which would be the highest by a Toronto player since Mats Sundin in 2005-06 (1.11).

• The Flyers have scored a power-play goal in 11 of their last 13 games.

• JVR has collected 44 goals and 84 points in 110 games since joining the Leafs.

• The Flyers are among the NHL’s best penalty-killing teams on the road at 15.5 percent.

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.