There is no overstating the importance of Sean Couturier to the Flyers.
Particularly at this juncture of the playoffs, when the Flyers have to be close to perfect.
Shooting for close to perfect without Couturier feels oxymoronic.
"I hate to use that word 'perfect player,' but he’s the closest thing that you’ll find,” Flyers assistant coach Ian Laperriere said in July about Couturier.
To take the next step toward completing a second-round series comeback and reach their first Eastern Conference Final since 2010, the Flyers might have to do so without their Frank J. Selke Trophy finalist.
On Tuesday night, Couturier was forced to leave the Flyers’ 4-3 OT Game 5 win over the Islanders late in the second period after colliding with Mathew Barzal. Couturier did not return for the third period or overtime as it looked like he banged knees with Barzal.
At noon ET on Wednesday, Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault said Couturier was still being evaluated and that the team did not yet have an update (it can’t say much, anyway).
“I should know more at some point today,” Vigneault said during a video interview. “Maybe fill you guys in tomorrow.”
Couturier is regarded for his quiet toughness. He grinds, he doesn’t take a shift off and he plays big minutes — nicks and bruises, be damned. And MCL injuries.
During the first-round series loss to the Penguins in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Couturier put up six points (four goals, two assists) over Games 5 and 6 playing on a torn MCL. This season, as the Flyers tried to monitor his shoulder strain, Couturier somewhat sneakily took faceoffs (it’s hard to keep him out of the dot).
So the fact that the 27-year-old center couldn’t return to Tuesday’s Game 5, with his team trailing 3-1 in its best-of-seven series and trying to force a Game 6, tells you a good bit about the original severity of Couturier’s injury. It can’t be promising if No. 14 is unable to get back out there in a situation of that magnitude.
We might know more about Couturier’s status around noon ET Thursday leading up to Game 6 at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.
If the Flyers don’t have Couturier — especially against a defensive-minded, forecheck-oriented team like the Islanders — it’s a serious blow to the club's chances at staving off elimination.
In the regular season, Couturier was first on the Flyers in even strength points (46), faceoff win percentage (59.6 percent) and plus-minus (plus-21), second in points (59) and shots (185), tied for second in assists (37), third in goals (22) and shorthanded time on ice (140:29), fourth in time on ice per game (19:50) and tied for fifth in power play points (13).
“He does everything for our team — first power play, first PK, takes a lot of big draws for us,” Scott Laughton said Wednesday in a video interview. “Obviously you’re not going to fill the shoes of a player like that, but I think you have to do it by committee and everyone has to step up and do the same job to try and make up for it.
“We’ll see what happens here in the next day, but he’s a leader for us, he brings a lot to our team. Like I said about [Claude Giroux], guys follow that guy and he does everything right.”
If Couturier is unable to play in Game 6, there are a few ways in which the Flyers could adjust.
Michael Raffl, who has sat out the last three games but partook in Tuesday’s morning skate, is the most likely candidate to jump into the lineup if he’s healthy enough to play. Raffl can play either center or winger and has lineup flexibility.
If Raffl is not available, Connor Bunnaman seems like the next on deck. The 22-year-old has played four games in the NHL’s return-to-play 24-team tournament and the Flyers like his size and smarts in bottom-six responsibilities. Bunnaman also has the ability to play center or winger.
In Couturier’s absence, Laughton joined the top line with Giroux and Jakub Voracek. With players like Raffl, Bunnaman, Derek Grant and Nate Thompson, the Flyers have wiggle room down the middle to permit Laughton to climb.
Morgan Frost, the exciting 21-year-old center, feels like a long shot to enter the lineup. The Flyers, of course, really like the upside with his skill and playmaking, but the Islanders are a physical, on-top-of-you team. Frost is not the biggest and has not played an NHL game since Feb. 10; calling his number now feels unlikely.
Against New York in another elimination game, the Flyers know they’ll “need to continue to grease it and grind it,” as Vigneault put it Wednesday.
It’s either Couturier or committee as the Flyers look to force a Game 7.