Flyers Weekly Observations: Where has this offensive eruption been?

Flyers Weekly Observations: Where has this offensive eruption been?

They're still kicking. Somehow.

The Flyers were red-hot this past week, winning all four games on the slate as they kept their exponentially slim playoff hopes alive.

This past week included win a 6-2 win in Pittsburgh over the rival Penguins on Sunday, a 3-2 shootout win over the visiting Ottawa Senators on Tuesday, a 6-3 triumph over the New York Islanders on Thursday night in South Philly and a 3-0 shutout win over the visiting New Jersey Devils on Saturday evening.

Let's dive a bit further into the week that was for the Flyers.

• Where were these Flyers the last several months? The Flyers erupted for 17 goals this past week, 18, if you count the shootout winner Tuesday vs. the Sens. How monumental, was this offensive eruption for this group of Flyers? For a one-month stretch from Jan. 14 to Feb. 15, it took the Flyers 13 games to score a total of 18 goals. Of course, the first thought it is that maybe if these goals were there earlier in the year, maybe the Flyers wouldn't be in this situation on the outside looking in and with hopes of playing into mid-April on life support. And rightfully so. Wayne Simmonds said it best earlier this week when asked about the Flyers' spot in the standings and the fact they need a lot of help to get in -- this situation was caused by self-inflicted wounds.

• Speaking of lighting up the net, the Flyers' power play rose from the dead this past week. After Sunday's game in Pittsburgh, the Flyers were 3 for their last 46 with the man advantage. Starting with Tuesday's showing against Ottawa, the Flyers' power play is 4 for its last 11. What's been the difference? Look at the blue line, and specifically Shayne Gostisbehere. Ghost has once again discovered his ability to get his booming slapper from the point on net consistently. Brayden Schenn tipped home a Ghost drive Tuesday and Simmonds painfully deflected one home off his knee on Thursday. Ghost is clearly healthy again and it shows. But, more importantly, he's supremely confident again. Both are huge boosts to the Flyers' power play.

• Michal Neuvirth's episode on Saturday against the Devils was frightening. If you somehow missed it, Neuvirth collapsed suddenly in his crease and laid prone on the ice for several moments before he sat up and was wheeled off the ice on a stretcher. This past summer, I wrote a feature story on a charity basketball tournament with NBA players called the Danny Rumph Classic. It's named after a former Philly high school hoops star who died suddenly during a pick-up game from cardiac arrest traced back to a heart ailment. As morbid as this sounds, you can't help but think of things like when you see a healthy athlete such as Neuvirth collapse out of the blue. Fortunately, Neuvirth was released from the hospital Sunday and is home resting as everything seems to be related to a respiratory infection.

• Anthony Stolarz looked solid when pressed into duty in a tough situation on Saturday night. Remember, he didn't take warmups and didn't even arrive at the Wells Fargo Center from Lehigh Valley until 6:55 p.m. Saturday. He stopped all 26 shots he faced. And while the Devils aren't the most offensively gifted team in the league, Stolarz was still challenged at times. New Jersey had a strong flurry toward the end of the second period, but Stolarz stood tall and stopped a couple Devils' chances right on the doorstep. The Flyers' goaltending situation this summer is going to be a tricky one, but that's another story for another day.

• How about Jordan Weal? The kid just keeps delivering as he scored in all four Flyers' wins this past week. But it's not just that he can put the puck in the net. It's how he puts the puck in the net from the dirty areas around the crease. The 24-year-old is just 5-foot-10, but he goes to the gritty areas and he gets rewarded for it. Remember, it's not about how you score them. They all count the same in the end. Weal has been a real nice spark for a team that desperately needed some offensive juice.

• On both Thursday and Saturday, the Flyers had prime chances to move up the standings as the teams they're chasing in the wild-card hunt were all in action. The Flyers took care of business. The problem is that the other teams did, too. Destiny isn't a fun thing when you don't do nearly enough to put it in your own hands.

Coming up this week: Sunday at N.Y. Rangers (7:30 p.m./NBCSN), Tuesday at New Jersey (7 p.m./CSN), Saturday vs. Columbus (12:30 p.m./CSN), Sunday vs. Carolina (7 p.m./CSN)

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.