John Boruk

Flyers-Panthers observations: Goals continue to pile up in 5-1 win

Flyers-Panthers observations: Goals continue to pile up in 5-1 win

BOX SCORE

The second period has been the knockout round lately for the Flyers and that proved to be the case again on Tuesday night.

The Flyers won their second straight game at the Wells Fargo Center as they scored four goals in the second period to crush the Florida Panthers, 5-1. They proved once again that their four-line attack is simply too much for opponents. 

Going back to last Tuesday’s game in Nashville, Dave Hakstol’s team has now scored 10 second-period goals in its last three games.

Starting for the first time in 12 days, Michal Neuvirth was a well-oiled machine and showed no signs of rust as he stopped 40 shots for his first win of the season. The Panthers scored a power-play goal with 3:50 remaining to spoil Neuvirth’s chance at a shutout. 

• Neuvirth stymied the Panthers in spectacular fashion in the early stages. He denied Derek MacKenzie, Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov in the opening 20 minutes. It’s going to be hard for Hakstol not to reward Neuvirth with another start soon.

• The Flyers dominated mostly through their transitional game. One of the biggest differences in the opening month has been the Flyers’ ability to create quality scoring chances off the rush, and they dominated in that area Tuesday night.

• Shayne Gostisbehere scored his first goal of the season on a breakout after a nice give-and-go play with Wayne Simmonds. Jordan Weal deserved some sort of assist as he drove his defender Mark Pysyk into the shooting lane, blocking Roberto Luongo’s view. Instead, it was rookie Robert Hagg who picked up his first NHL point on the secondary assist that started the breakout. 

“We’re confident,” Gostisbehere said. “We’re riding high, but we have to keep an even keel and keep going.”

• Later in the second period, the Flyers’ power play went to work. After the Panthers’ shorthanded opportunity was thwarted, Valtteri Filppula fed a wide-open Claude Giroux, who beat Luongo through an exposed five-hole. Giroux pumped his fist in celebration, displaying some confidence that was lacking for most of last season.

• The prettiest scoring play of the night was reserved for the Flyers’ fourth goal. That play started when Travis Konecny outraced the defense for a breakaway that Luongo denied. A trailing Nolan Patrick fed a pass between his legs to Dale Weise, who slipped a wrist shot past Luongo. Patrick’s second career assist was proof of the hockey sense to know where his teammates are on the ice and a credit to his unselfish play (see video).

• Simmonds capped the entertainment value on this night when he roughed up the Panthers’ newest “enforcer” Michael Haley, dropping him to the ice following a series of rights. Haley joined the Panthers in the offseason after he was second in the NHL last season with 16 fights.

Simmonds was last on the ice around midway through the third period. He was taken out for precautionary reasons with a lower-body injury. A further update will be provided in the next two days.

• Sean Couturier’s office appears to be anywhere there’s blue paint. The Flyers’ top-line center opened the scoring from the seat of his pants as he was left alone in front, made a nice move and whacked away at a loose puck that just crossed the line behind Luongo. Of Couturier’s four goals, the puck has yet to leave the ice.

First-period observations
• If you’re going to get burned on a breakaway, better make it against a fourth-line center. Florida’s MacKenzie was denied a point-blank shot in the first period as Konency did an excellent job of racing back to get his stick on the puck from behind MacKenzie without committing a penalty.

• Looking for his first goal since the season opener in San Jose, Weal had two prime opportunities in a span of 15 seconds to score on the Flyers’ first power play. Playing his off wing, Weal misfired on one chance and missed the net on the other.  

• Panthers center Owen Tippett made his NHL debut Tuesday at the Wells Fargo Center. Tippett was the 10th overall selection in the 2017 NHL draft, and he’s the fifth player from the most recent draft class to play in the league this season. Unlike Patrick, selected second overall, Tippet was a non-factor.

Lines, pairings and scratches

Forwards
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds
Dale Weise-Nolan Patrick-Travis Konecny
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl

Defensemen
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hagg
Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas

Goalies
Michal Neuvirth
Brian Elliott

Scratched: Jori Lehtera and Travis Sanheim.

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.