Ivan Provorov

Which player can the Flyers least afford to lose?

Which player can the Flyers least afford to lose?

When Sean Couturier briefly left Friday’s game in Columbus, his absence ignited a conversation around the NBC Sports Philadelphia newsroom which led to the Hot Take question: Which player could the Flyers least afford to lose to injury? In other words, which Flyer is the most indispensable to the team’s overall success? Here's my ranking, starting at the top, of the players the Flyers can least afford to lose. Let the debate begin.

1. Michal Neuvirth 
This may come as a surprise considering that just a few weeks ago, Neuvirth was serving in a reserve role behind Brian Elliott who was the clear-cut No. 1 in net. Since stepping in as a starter, Neuvirth has promptly delivered with a .950 save percentage and a 1.93 goals against. The reason Neuvirth falls under the heading as most indispensable is rather simple: the drop-off from Neuvirth to Alex Lyon is significantly steep. Lyon struggled in his two starts adapting to the NHL’s level of pace and skill, and right now, Lyon’s not a viable option to handle the No. 1 job over an extended period. Without Neuvirth, Lyon and Phantoms goalie Dustin Tokarski, who has 34 games of NHL experience plus five playoff games with the Montreal Canadiens, would serve as the Flyers' 1-2 punch in net. 

2. Ivan Provorov 
The Flyers' shutdown defenseman logs more than three minutes of ice time more than the next Flyers defenseman, and his playing partner, Shayne Gostisbehere, has elevated his game (both offensively and defensively) since he’s been paired with Provorov. Andrew MacDonald’s flaws weren’t quite as exposed playing side-by-side with Provorov prior to the switch. While Provorov hasn’t quite been his steady self over the past several weeks and his puck handling at times can be adventurous, you can’t disregard his importance because his work along the boards and his ability to separate the player from the puck is unquestionably the best among the Flyers' blueliners. If the Flyers lost Provorov, rookie Robert Hägg or MacDonald would likely join Gostisbehere on the top pairing, with Radko Gudas moving up to the second pairing and Mark Alt becoming a regular contributor again.

3. Sean Couturier 
The Flyers' No. 1 center has logged some monster minutes this season. Among forwards, only Kings captain Anze Kopitar has been on the ice more than Couturier, who also ranks fourth in average ice time. Couturier plays a vital role in all situations and will likely be a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward, not to mention, he’s also on pace to score a mind-blowing 41 goals this season. When Couturier registers a point, the Flyers' record is 23-4-9 this season. Few players can drive to the net with and without the puck as effectively as Couturier. Senators coach Guy Boucher recently called him a “buy-in guy,” who will essentially do anything that is asked of him and then some. It's difficult to envision how the Flyers would adapt without Couturier. I can't see Nolan Patrick, Scott Laughton or Valtteri Filppula stepping into his role as the No. 1 center, so moving Claude Giroux to the middle and Jake Voracek to left wing on the first line would likely make the most sense.

4. Jakub Voracek 
When healthy, Voracek makes an entire line better, no matter who he’s with. While Voracek commits his share of turnovers and giveaways, his ability to carry the puck into the offensive zone is such an important part of the team’s puck possession metrics. He started the season with Giroux and Couturier before Dave Hakstol was forced to break up that trio in a desperate attempt to snap the Flyers' 10-game winless streak. His numbers have remained consistent regardless of who he has played with, and while he’s not a primary scoring option, the Flyers' power play funnels in Voracek’s direction with his league-leading 25 power play assists. No one Flyer can step into Voracek’s role and do precisely what he does on a nightly basis.

5. Claude Giroux 
Hard to believe that the Flyers' leading scorer and the NHL’s fourth-leading scorer would be fifth on this list, but it speaks more to the depth of the Flyers than it does to Giroux himself. Without Giroux, Couturier would not be enjoying the career season he’s had, and even Travis Konecny for that matter. Giroux is back playing in the 20-minute range after an injury-plagued season, and like Couturier and Voracek, redistributing those minutes would not come easily. There are the intangibles to Giroux’s game that are hard to quantify. Giroux's absence would create several holes — the ability to create offense with his vision and hockey IQ, his leadership, and the importance of winning crucial faceoffs. At 58.5 percent, Giroux ranks third in the NHL in faceoff percentage. 

Provorov's Olympic disappointment

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USA Today Images

Provorov's Olympic disappointment

Ivan Provorov is disappointed. 

Not bitter and disgusted like Alex Ovechkin may feel, but upset nonetheless that the NHL won’t be participating in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“It is unfortunate and a little sad, because every time you get a chance to represent your country it’s something special,” said Provorov. “It’s a different type of feeling because you get together, you have to jell real fast and find chemistry. It’s a shorter tournament, two to three weeks. Every time you get a chance to play for your country it’s something special. It is very unfortunate and sad that NHL players can’t go.”

The reality will hit home when Russia opens the Olympic tournament on Wednesday, Feb. 14 against Slovakia. Had the NHL and the Players Association struck an agreement, this would have been Provorov’s first trip to the Olympics and probably his only opportunity to play with superstars like Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, iconic figures he grew up watching as a kid in Yaroslavl, who are no longer in the NHL.

“Datsyuk is definitely one of them,” said Provorov. “Growing up there was Sergei Gonchar. I got to watch a little bit of (Sergei) Zubov. He was an unbelievable player, a great two-way defenseman.”

Four years ago, Provorov was a 17-year-old skating for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the USHL when his native Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi. There was a tremendous level of expectations for the Russian hockey team that finished a very disappointing fifth. Since the incorporation of NHLers in the Olympics, Russia hasn’t medaled since winning bronze in 2002 in Salt Lake City, and the last time they claimed gold came in 1992 when the former Soviet nations formed the Unified team. Provorov wasn’t even born yet.

Still, the importance and relevance of winning Olympic gold is not lost on the 21-year-old defenseman. Provorov comprised a Russian team that took the bronze at the World Championships and he’s been part of two silver medal winning team at the World Junior Championships.   

“Hockey is one of the main sports back home. Everybody watches it and everybody loves it,” said Provorov. “That would be huge. It would be special. It’s a different feeling playing in the NHL. It’s a longer season. Eighty-two games and then playoffs. It’s a grind. There, it’s a different feeling because you get together real fast.”   

Along with former Los Angeles Kings blueliner Slava Voynov, Provorov may have been Team Russia’s top defenseman in the tournament. He would have been tasked to play some big minutes while shutting down some of the most talented lines assembled. Some hockey players could be overwhelmed saddled with that level of responsibility, but Flyers general manager Ron Hextall believes Provorov would have handled the pressure with the same calmness and composure of playing 20-25 minutes every night in the NHL. 

“I don’t think he’s the type of kid that needs a shot in the arm or perform at a certain event to elevate his game,” said Hextall. “Ivan’s a very driven player. He brings a terrific focus and work ethic to the rink every day. I guess you can always say it may benefit him, but I think Ivan playing in the NHL every day as a young kid is benefitting him right now as well.”
 
Why Provorov doesn’t harbor the resentment like other players around the league, including teammate Jake Voracek, is that he doesn’t exactly know what he’s missing out on. His Olympic dream is on hiatus, and come 2022 in Beijing, Provorov will be 25 and arguably in the prime of his career. 

“I’m young, so hopefully in 4 years I’ll have another chance to go.”

Flyers' 'pretty good' not nearly good enough vs. NHL's best

Flyers' 'pretty good' not nearly good enough vs. NHL's best

BOX SCORE

There’s nothing Dave Hakstol, or even a Super Bowl-bound coach, could have done to change the Flyers’ fate.

On a night when the Eagles’ Doug Pederson dropped the ceremonial first puck prior to the game (see story), the Tampa Bay Lightning showed why they’ve owned the NHL during the first half of the season. 

The Lightning struck fast and furiously during a three-goal second period to cruise to a 5-1 win over the Flyers Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations). The victory was Tampa Bay’s 34th of the season as it also became the first team to reach 70 points this season.

With the All-Star Game convening in Tampa, Florida, this weekend, the Lightning showed why they have the largest contingency chosen to represent the Atlantic Division. 

All-Star center Brayden Point opened the scoring just 25 seconds into the second period when the Flyers overloaded their coverage to the far side of the ice and left him alone in front of Michal Neuvirth (see highlights).

“We knew how they play on the road,” Neuvirth said. “They shoot a lot of pucks and they are just playing with the puck and waiting for the big scoring chance, and we had a tough time in front of our net.”  

Nine and a half minutes later, winger Yanni Gourde increased the Lightning’s lead to 2-0 when he was left unaccompanied just to the right of Neuvirth as the Flyers had another breakdown in coverage.

“I think we played pretty good, but pretty good doesn’t cut it against teams like that,” defenseman Ivan Provorov said. “A couple of mistakes cost us the game. We fell behind but we were pushing. We scored a goal to make it 3-1, but gave up another one right after, which we cannot do.” 

Russian-born Provorov had to admire the play of his fellow countrymen Nikita Kucherov (two assists), Vladislav Namestnikov (two goals) and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who showed precisely why he’s been the NHL’s best goaltender in the first half of the season as he denied 36 of the 37 shots he faced.

“He’s big. Even the pucks he doesn’t see he uses his body pretty well to still find a way to stop it,” center Sean Couturier said. “He seems to be athletic. He’s a good goalie. He made some big saves, kept them in the game, and the next thing you know we’re chasing.”

Perhaps most discouraging was to watch the Flyers’ power play cough up another shorthanded goal, its eighth this season. Ryan Callahan wheeled completely around defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere for a goal that essentially put the game out of reach at 3-0 in the final minutes of the second period.

“Whether you’re a fan of us or not, that was a really nice hockey play,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “That was probably the one that took the wind out of their sails. That was a heck of an effort.”

Hakstol expressed concern during the morning skate over how his team appeared mentally and physically exhausted just two nights earlier in Detroit. However, that didn’t appear to be the case against the Lightning, as the Flyers outshot them by a 37-22 margin.

“I thought we deserved a better fate,” Hakstol said. “Second period, we came out of it down 3-0 and that’s a pretty deep, deep hole. In the goals we gave up, there were a couple of individual mistakes and probably somewhere in there we need a save on one of those, at least.”

“Obviously we outshot them quite handily, but their opportunities were prime opportunities, and obviously they’re probably the highest-scoring team in the league,” forward Wayne Simmonds said.  

Despite the loss, the Flyers have won eight of 10 to propel them into a wild-card position. Only the Boston Bruins have earned more points in the Eastern Conference during that stretch.

“I think we put ourselves in a good spot,” said Travis Konecny, who now has a four-game goal streak. “It’s tough saying that when you lose a game like this, but I think we’ve done a lot of good things up to this point. I think we can take these last 10 games going into the break as a positive even though we had a little slip-up, but those happen."

“It’s frustrating going into a break like this, but at the same time, we’ve got to look at what we have been doing for a month or so and we’ve got to build on it when we come back,” captain Claude Giroux said.

Since the start of 2018, an interesting trend has also emerged. One the Flyers would like to carry over coming out of the All-Star break:

• 5-1 loss to the Penguins on Jan. 2 followed by four straight wins

• 5-1 loss to the Rangers on Jan. 16 followed by four straight wins

• 5-1 loss to the Lightning on Jan. 25 …

Another four-game winning streak? We’ll see if the pattern continues next Wednesday in Washington.