Flyers

Nearly 3 weeks later, Mason looking to stay hot

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Nearly 3 weeks later, Mason looking to stay hot

When the Olympic break began on Feb. 9, Steve Mason was a hot goalie.

The 25-year-old Canadian had won three straight games, four of his last five, had two shutouts and came within 90 seconds of a third.

Mason was in the kind of groove every goalie wants with the stretch run to the playoffs around the bend.

That 23-game run begins Thursday for the Flyers when San Jose visits town.

“It’s great to have time off to relax and not have any stress, but at the end of the day, this is the time we look for,” said Mason, who spent some time in the Bahamas with nine childhood buddies during the break.

“We look forward to it each and every day. It’s nice to get away from the pressures the NHL season brings, refresh and get ready for this last stretch.”

Mason spent some on-ice practice time last week with goalie coach Jeff Reese trying to fine tune some aspects of his game.

“We are doing a lot of technical [things] right now,” Reese said. “Things we really haven’t had a chance to do a lot of because the schedule has been so condensed. It’s nice to get out early and do some things we have not had a chance to do.”

Interestingly, one of the things they did was analyze some video of U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick (L.A. Kings) and Finnish goalie Tuukka Rask (Boston Bruins).

What they looked at was how both goalies play the puck when it’s behind the net, where so many NHL teams now are trying to set up plays.

“Tuukka Rask and Jonathan Quick ... when pucks are behind the net and they have players in front, they tend to be on the knees, which is a safe play that can take away the lower part of the net on quick jam plays,” Mason said.

“Those are some of the best goaltenders in the league. Any time you can learn something from your peers, it is something you can take advantage of.”

Mason, who goes into the Sharks encounter with a 2.49 goals against average and .918 save percentage, said he doesn’t divide the stretch run into any specific segment of games.

Fourteen of those games, incidentally, are on home ice.

“You can make the playoffs or miss by a hair,” Mason said. “The only way to not get overrun by this is to take it day by day and game by game and not look too far ahead. It’s going to be extremely busy at the end of the season for us. We have to take it in stride.

“On a personal note, just to pick up where the game left off at the break. If everything goes according to plan, we’ll be in the playoffs.

“We’re extremely comfortable with the team we have. If we’re able to make it, we’ll make some noise and there’s a lot of work to be done in order to get there. Our fate is in our own hands.”

Most coaches will tell you that an 18-day layoff for a hot goalie is lot more destructive to their game than a forward who was on a goal-scoring spree.

“When players get back into regular season, they have their linemates who can help pick them up,” Mason said. “But when a goaltender is having an off night, it’s pretty obvious.

“Pucks are going in. For myself, make sure when Thursday night rolls around I am confident in my own game. Utilize this week to my best of my abilities.”

Reese isn’t calling it a “cram” session like final exams, but last week and this week will see a decent amount of classroom work off the ice.

“Jeff has some things he wants me to keep working on,” Mason said. “We had a full week of practice to do that. We have not been strapped for time to get that work done.

“There is a little sense of urgency to it. Come Thursday, we’re not taking baby steps, we’re ready right off the first puck drop and ready to go.”

Reese said the biggest thing for Mason and his backup, Ray Emery, was mental relaxation before the pressure of the stretch run.

“It’s not like they can’t get it back,” Reese said. “They are both well-rested. Mentally, it’s important that they got away from it a little bit.

“Both are looking forward to getting back into it. It’s going to be important for them to play well down the stretch and help get us in.”

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.