Flyers

Nolan Patrick doesn't look out of place in Flyers' preseason OT loss to Islanders

Nolan Patrick doesn't look out of place in Flyers' preseason OT loss to Islanders

BOX SCORE

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — It certainly didn't have the feel of the first preseason game of the season on a Sunday afternoon when many sports fans are glued to a TV watching the NFL.

But a sellout crowd of 13,917 poured into the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum to watch the first hockey game in the former home of the Islanders for the first time since April 2015, and the Isles treated this exhibition as if it had some sentimental emotions.

Fans lined the parking lot of the newly-renovated arena tailgating a good two to three hours leading up to faceoff.     

"Didn't think energy was an issue," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. "Pretty good pace to this game. I think probably the atmosphere had something to do with that.

"It was a great atmosphere. It was competitive all the way through. It's tough to lose in overtime. Performance wise and effort wise were good."

Islanders captain John Tavares ended the game just 34 seconds into overtime to give New York a 3-2 win over the Flyers with his second goal (see observations). Tavares beat Flyers goalie Leland Irving, who signed an AHL contract with the team last month.

Hakstol anticipated that tired legs would be an issue after two hard days to open training camp that included a lot of skating and some intense board battles during drills.

"They did what we asked," Hakstol said. "Go out and play to your strengths, play within themselves and do the things that they do best. Playing with poise and confidence and making plays."

Unlike Hakstol, who utilized a prospect-heavy group, Islanders head coach Doug Weight elected to use a more veteran-heavy presence in his lineup that included Tavares, newcomer Jordan Eberle, Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, Nick Leddy and former Flyer Dennis Seidenberg.

Irving took over for Alex Lyon in the third and faced a pair of point-blank opportunities in the opening minute from Tavares, who then won it in OT.

"Yeah, it's tough," Irving said with a laugh. "Tough going into the third. Sometimes those situations happen too, so you just have to be ready and prepare yourself for that situation.

"He obviously has some great finish. I knew who had the puck so it was just trying to be patient, follow him across, but he made a good shot right above the pad and below the blocker. When it goes post and in, you just tip your cap to him.

"You did what you had to do."

Hakstol couldn't have drawn up a better game situation to test the youth of his team after the Islanders erased a 2-0 deficit at the 14:37 mark of the third period.

"You could feel it in the legs today that you had two days of hard practices," defenseman Robert Hagg said. "At the same time you need to find a way to get around it, play a solid game and that's what I tried to focus on."

The natural Patrick
Playing in his first NHL game, second overall pick Nolan Patrick definitely didn't look out of place. There is a relative ease to his game, where he knows precisely where to be on the ice and exudes a calmness and confidence that rarely accompanies a rookie his age.

Patrick, who turns 19 on Tuesday, was teamed up on a line with Oskar Lindblom and Travis Konecny. That trio had not worked at all together prior to Sunday's preseason game.

"Yeah, he's a good player," Patrick said of Lindblom. "He protects the puck well. He's got a good shot. I think I'll be more of a pass-first guy, so I can find him as much as I can. Obviously, they had a pretty good lineup over there. I thought I played OK.

"I know I can still be better. Obviously, a little bit of nerves going into that first one."

Prospect watch
It's just the first preseason game, but Sam Morin and Hagg may have gained some separation from the other defensive prospects by turning in steady performances. Coming off a rookie game where he played in big chunks of minutes, Travis Sanheim had a bad turnover trying to bank a pass off the boards behind the Flyers' net that led to an uncontested shot on Lyon, and Mathew Barzal blew past Sanheim in the right circle before scoring the game-tying goal.

Phillipe Myers had some minor miscues, but the one that led to Tavares' overtime-winner certainly stood out. Part of constructing the roster for Sunday's game was to see how the four main defensive prospects would play together and handle the pressure and tempo of an NHL game.

"We certainly wanted to have those young guys in this game," Hakstol said. "It probably won't be the last game that we see them in. We tried to get them all within their roles, and I thought, for the most part, there was a lot of positive performances there.

"Obviously, there's a lot of learning experiences there as well, but there were some good positives."

Who can wing it?
General manager Ron Hextall is a firm believer that playmaking centers with good hockey IQ can make the transition from center to wing. Two players were called upon to make that transition Sunday.

Jori Lehtera manned the left side with Mikhail Vorobyev in the middle, and rookie Mike Vecchione lined up at right wing for the first time in roughly five years after playing center in his four seasons at Union College, where he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker award as college hockey's top performers last season.

Vecchione didn’t back down from the challenge, showing a real toughness in battling for the puck along the boards.

“It’s a bit of an adjustment. I’d been working at it all week,” Vecchione said. “I played in high school and through junior and then I switched to center in college, where they needed me to play center. I have a fairly good background at right wing. It’s a little bit of a learning experience too. I’m just trying to adjust as best I can.”

Lehtera has played wing in international competition, but this will be the first time he’s played the position significantly on the smaller NHL ice where there’s more of a premium on winning individual board battles. Lehtera passed the first test with a shorthanded goal to go along with an assist.

“I played there in Olympics, World Cup and World Championships, so it’s not weird,” Lehtera said. ”I don’t think it matters if you have a good centerman it doesn’t matter if you’re a winger. It was a good first start.”

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

usa-brandon-manning-travis-sanheim-flyers.jpg
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At this point, Brandon Manning appears to have advantage over Travis Sanheim

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, where 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,” head coach Dave 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’s 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

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 Jake 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 plays 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.

“100 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 they 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 six 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 bonafide 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 Sean 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.