Flyers

Stanley Cup Final: Predators handle Penguins to even series at 2-2

Stanley Cup Final: Predators handle Penguins to even series at 2-2

BOX SCORE

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Frederick Gaudreau sure is doing his best to earn his own locker with the Nashville Predators with a Stanley Cup Final debut for the ages.

For now, he insists he is happy enough just to sit on the floor as long as he plays.

An undrafted free agent playing in just his sixth postseason game, Gaudreau scored the go-ahead goal 3:45 into the second period and Pekka Rinne made 23 often-spectacular saves as the Predators beat the Penguins 4-1 on Monday night to even the series at 2-2.

It's now a best-of-three sprint to the Stanley Cup, and Nashville is riding a wave of momentum after outscoring the defending champions 9-2 in the Games 3 and 4 of their Final debut.

Game 5 is Thursday night in Pittsburgh.

Gaudreau, a 24-year-old rookie, only has a chair in the locker room, but he now is the second player in NHL history to score his first three career goals in a Stanley Cup Final, joining Johnny Harms with the 1944 Blackhawks.

"He's been unbelievable for us the way he's come in, and he's just been so good, timely goals and composed," Nashville captain Mike Fisher said. "He definitely belongs, and he's been a huge part of our success."

Gaudreau is also just the third rookie to score game-winning goals in consecutive games in the Stanley Cup Final since the NHL took over sole possession of the trophy in 1926-27. Pittsburgh's Jake Guentzel did it in the first two games of this series and Roy Conacher did it for Boston in Games 3, 4 and 5 against Toronto in 1939.

Calle Jarnkrok, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg also scored for Nashville, which improved to 9-1 at home and roared back after dropping the first two games of the series on the road.

"We were in a tough hole against a really good team, came home and took care of the home games with the help of all our great fans," Rinne said. "It's a great feeling. We played two really good games."

Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby scored his first goal in the series after not getting a shot on goal in Game 3. The goal was his first in the Stanley Cup Final since June 4, 2009, a span of 12 games, but it wasn't enough as the Penguins lost two straight for the second time this postseason. Goalie Matt Murray lost consecutive games for the first time in his young career.

"It's hard to win when you score one goal," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. "I thought tonight of all nights, we generated the most chances of the highest quality."

Nashville tapped country singer Dierks Bentley as the latest star to sing the national anthem, while Jason Aldean waved the towel to rev up the crowd. Former NBA star and TV commentator Charles Barkley also was on hand , accepting NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's invitation to watch in person. Carrie Underwood admitted during the first intermission that she didn't get Fisher, her husband, a birthday present on Monday -- holding out hope that a Stanley Cup championship celebration would do the trick in coming days.

"That's all I wanted for my birthday," Fisher said afterward of the big win.

Craig Smith ricocheted a puck off Murray's pads that Jarnkrok tapped in at 14:51 to start the fans yelling louder. Pittsburgh lost a challenge for goalie interference.

Just 66 seconds later, Crosby tied it up for Pittsburgh on a dazzling breakaway. He skated in on Rinne, holding the puck, faking a slap shot and then slipping one past the goalie for his eighth goal and 24th point of the playoffs. He also moved into 20th all-time in NHL playoff points but the Predators clamped down after that.

Rinne kept it tied in the early minutes of the second with a stop of Guentzel before a big save on Chris Kunitz on a breakaway. And then came Gaudreau's goal, confirmed only after the horn sounded and officials reviewed the play. They ruled Gaudreau's wraparound attempt slid the puck just over the line before Murray stopped it, giving Nashville a 2-1 lead 3:45 into the second.

"I heard it on the bench that it was possibly in the net," Gaudreau said. "I wasn't certain. When I heard the horn, I sort of thought it was in."

Crosby had another breakaway nearly midway through the period, and Rinne stopped him not once, but twice. Then the goalie slid to his right stopping Guentzel with an assist from Nashville defenseman Roman Josi. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin finished with six shots, but just the lone goal.

"It's a game of execution," Crosby said. "They capitalized on our mistakes, and we have to do the same."

Arvidsson made it a 3-1 Nashville lead with his first goal since the end of the first round. James Neal started the play, getting the puck to Fisher who fed the puck up to Arvidsson while falling to the ice. Arvidsson beat Murray under his glove, putting the puck just inside the right post at 13:08.

"If I make the save there, it could be a different game," Murray said.

Forsberg sealed the win with an empty-netter with 3:23 left.

Notes
Fisher, scoreless until the Final, now has four points with his fourth on his 37th birthday. ... With his goal, Crosby now has 161 career playoff points and moved past Mike Bossy, Gordie Howe, Al MacInnis and Bobby Smith for 20th all-time by himself. ... The Penguins now are 13-3 after a playoff loss under coach Mike Sullivan, and Murray is 7-1 in playoff games started after a loss. ... Rain kept the crowd outside from reaching the more than 50,000 who turned Saturday night for the first Stanley Cup Final game in Tennessee. Still, people filled three blocks of Broadway, even with Nashville opening up a downtown amphitheater for fans to watch. ... After the anthem, two catfish and one stuffed penguin hit the ice despite Nashville coach Peter Laviolette's video plea earlier Monday asking fans not to throw anything.

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.