jakub voracek

Flyers-Panthers thoughts: Top line scary good; Manning-Sanheim big deal?

Flyers-Panthers thoughts: Top line scary good; Manning-Sanheim big deal?

Flyers (3-2-0) vs. Panthers (2-2-0)
7 p.m. on NBCSP, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports App; Pregame Live at 6:30
 
Did the Flyers save any goals for the rest of the five-game homestand?
 
That's probably what many are asking after watching the 8-2 demolition they put on the Washington Capitals in Saturday night's home opener.
 
The Flyers will try to keep things rolling Tuesday night when they welcome the Florida Panthers to the Wells Fargo Center.
 
Here are some thoughts before Game 6 of the season:
 
• You couldn't ask for much more from the Flyers' top line against the Capitals. Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek downright manhandled Washington. When Giroux moved to the left wing and Sean Couturier bumped up to first-line center, Saturday's performance was likely the dream scenario in the minds of the Flyers' coaching staff and front office.
 
It seemed like Voracek was making a play every time he touched the puck, Couturier did yeoman's work in all phases, and Giroux looked like his old self, showing a little bit of everything in his arsenal. The trio combined for 10 points on four goals and six assists. No one is expecting such production on a game-by-game basis, but let's see if this group can sustain these positive vibes and turn itself into a staple up top. As evidenced by Saturday, the Flyers go to a different level when those three are on.
 
• No one wants to see Travis Sanheim sitting. He's a first-round pick the fan base has been eager to see. He has great size and offensive upside for a defenseman. It will be exciting to watch him become a pillar of the Flyers' blue line.
 
But is it really the end of the world if Brandon Manning plays a couple games here in the early going? Manning will suit up Tuesday for his second straight game in place of Sanheim (more here from morning skate). The 21-year-old rookie won't be in the press box for long, though, because that doesn't jive with general manager Ron Hextall's development plan. So Sanheim will sit for a few, watch and learn. That's not too terrible.
 
And, the two games Manning has played so far (season opener and home opener), the Flyers won both by a combined score of 13-5. Was he the most critical reason why? No, but he didn't hurt the Flyers, either. Keeping your projected seventh defenseman somewhat active is a good idea for when/if he is needed.
 
Sanheim will be fine and he will play.
 
We're about to be only six games in here … let's just give this some time.
 
• Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said he planned on using both of his goalies over this homestand. Michal Neuvirth will get the call against the Panthers after Brian Elliott started four of the first five games. Neuvirth looks like the clear backup, but it's important to get him starts, and that's what Hakstol plans on doing.
 
Neuvirth didn't see Florida last season. However, he did see the Panthers in 2015-16 and was terrific, delivering a shutout, 1.59 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in two games. He hasn't seen game action since Oct. 5.
 
• Wayne Simmonds, who has been a stud so far with five goals in five games, did work against Florida last season, posting three goals and an assist in three games.
 
• The Panthers are good. They've scored 16 goals through their first four games, all tough tests against the Lightning twice, the Blues and the Penguins. Florida boasts some nice, young talent in center Jonathan Huberdeau (three goals, two assists), center Aleksander Barkov (three assists) and defenseman Aaron Ekblad (two goals, two assists), just to name some.
 
To add to it, Florida's first-round pick at 10th overall this past summer, Owen Tippett, will make his NHL debut tonight. The 18-year-old scored 44 goals in 60 junior games last season for the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads.
 
• Here is the Flyers' projected lineup:
 
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

Scratches: Forward Jori Lehtera and defenseman Travis Sanheim. 

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.

Flyers eat up Capitals with 1982-like goal frenzy in home-opening treat

Flyers eat up Capitals with 1982-like goal frenzy in home-opening treat

BOX SCORE

Home openers tend to feel like a party.
 
The Flyers made sure this one was, without any chance of it dying early.
 
They binge-scored Saturday night at the expense of their Metropolitan Division neighbors, suffocating the Washington Capitals with an outpouring of goals — an 8-2 onslaught in the Flyers' first Wells Fargo Center rendition of 2017-18 (see observations).
 
"It just kept coming down our throat," Capitals head coach Barry Trotz said.
 
Plenty of Flyers celebrated. Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and Scott Laughton all scored two goals, while Wayne Simmonds and Valtteri Filppula added one apiece. Giroux finished with four points and Couturier three. Shayne Gostisbehere and Jakub Voracek each had three assists. And 10 different Flyers recorded at least a point.
 
Now that's some offense.
 
"We played a good game," Giroux said. "I don't remember the last time that we won, 8-2, or something like that, so it's good to have a game like that.
 
"Those games are a little bit more fun."
 
The Flyers never had such fun last season when they consistently struggled to score goals, especially from mid-December to the finish line. They missed the playoffs after scoring the NHL's third-fewest markers since Dec. 15 with 110 in the final 50 games (2.20 per game). As a result, some doubts swirled in the offseason regarding the Flyers' core.
 
But Saturday represented a different team. Faster skating, greater possession and more weapons. The Flyers are younger and deeper and looked it.
 
"I think we've added a lot of depth and speed," Simmonds said. "I think those guys probably had a little more depth and speed than we do, so now it's evened up, it's who's going to play harder, who's going to want it that much more, so I think we're in a really good position."
 
This was the first time the Flyers scored eight or more goals in a game since Nov. 5, 2011, and the first time they did so in a home opener since Oct. 7, 1982.
 
The Flyers also saw Giroux, Voracek and Simmonds get the better of their Washington counterparts, something you couldn't say last season or the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Capitals' big names of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom had given them trouble in the recent past.
 
So much so that Giroux, Voracek and Simmonds combined for just two points in four games against Washington last season. On Saturday, they went off for nine points (three goals, six assists).
 
"Play with structure and play with detail," Trotz said. "If you play the right way, then your structure and your detail are going to be your security blanket. We didn’t have enough of that and we weren't smart. Absolutely stupid with the puck. We deserved every ounce of that. Giroux's line just ate up Kuznetsov's line today. It wasn't good."
 
While many of the household names did damage Saturday, the Flyers are pleased with the blend of youth and veterans. The new fourth line of Taylor Leier, Laughton and Michael Raffl has made up one of the team's best units. Jordan Weal and Filppula are playing their first full seasons with the Flyers. Nolan Patrick and Travis Konecny pose threats in the bottom six, while the defense is young and sharp, as expected.
 
"Our veterans are playing hard, playing well and the young guys are fitting in and doing their part," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. "It's a combination — we've played five games and the one common thread is we worked hard in all of those games and we've had everybody as a part of it, everybody has been chipping in. We haven’t gotten the results, obviously in all five games (3-2-0), but we’ve played hard as a team and that’s a good place to start."
 
The Flyers know this is just a start. Turning it into a season is the challenge. In 2016-17, the Flyers produced goals at a top-two clip through the first two months before tailing off.
 
"Tonight went well," Giroux said, "but we need to build on this.
 
"I really think we're just in better shape. The camp we had, guys came to camp in great shape. We don't really get tired. I think we've got four lines that play great. We don't have one line playing 22 minutes or something like that, so when you have four lines going, you can keep your energy up a little bit better.
 
"We've got to stay energized, keep working hard in practice and get ready for the next game. Tonight, the fans … I haven't heard the crowd loud like that in a while, so it was great to hear."
 
Eight goals and a party will do that.