Flyers

How Avalanche top line replaced Flyers' as the best in hockey

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How Avalanche top line replaced Flyers' as the best in hockey

Sean Couturier believes tonight's game is the ultimate test for a defensive-minded, two-way center like himself.

“Yeah, for sure. If our line is plus-1 or plus-2, we have a good chance of winning," Couturier said. "It’s kinda the mentality I’ve always had. It’s something I take pride in.”

For the second straight game, the Flyers will face a Hart Trophy finalist when they line up against Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche, but MacKinnon has the ability to take over a game and dominate unlike that of New Jersey’s Taylor Hall, who won the Hart Trophy as league MVP last season.

MacKinnon has points in all eight of his team’s games so far this season. Even more impressively, he has scored a goal in seven of those eight, and his eight even-strength goals lead the NHL.

“He’s such a dynamic and dominant player,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “We know who he is and what he is as a player and how effective he is. There’s a clear message for us on how we want to play against him.” 

The Flyers will have the advantage of having last line change so Couturier can be out there if and when Avalanche coach Jared Bednar elects to put the MacKinnon line on the ice. However, that hasn’t been much of a difference-maker so far this season, as MacKinnon has nine points in five road games as opposed to four points in three home games.

Most top lines have been disassembled and reassembled over the past year. Take the Flyers, who started last season with Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux and Couturier as production-wise the No. 1 line in hockey until they were broken up last December. MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog have been playing together since October 2017, and they’ve been clicking on all cylinders ever since. 

As of Monday, Landeskog and Rantanen were second in scoring with 14 points while Landeskog earned the league’s first star of the week. Since their formation, they’re a plus-26 in goal differential at even strength. Perhaps the only other line that can dominate to that degree is Boston’s trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, who have combined for 36 points to MacKinnon’s line with 38 points.    

In the 5-2 loss in Colorado on Oct. 6, the Flyers did a modest job containing the Avalanche's top line. However, Landeskog’s controversial tip-in goal was the eventual game-winner before MacKinnon added an empty-netter. Still, by Couturier’s standards, it wasn’t good enough.   

“I think we gave up a few too many odd-man rushes where he had the puck where he was flying down the middle,” Couturier said. “It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of recovering and being tight on (MacKinnon), and not letting him gain that time and space.”

The solution is simple in theory but difficult in execution.

“If we have the puck most of the night and play offense," Couturier said, "we won’t give up much of anything.”

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Devils reportedly interested in former Flyers head coaches Peter Laviolette, John Stevens

Devils reportedly interested in former Flyers head coaches Peter Laviolette, John Stevens

With the NHL's 24-team return-to-play plan, naturally some hockey fans have enjoyed poking fun at the seven clubs left out of the field.

The Devils being one of them.

But not is all bad for the Flyers' Metropolitan Division foe. New Jersey has a 7.5 percent chance to earn the No. 1 overall draft slot after landing the top pick in 2019 (Jack Hughes) and 2017 (Nico Hischier). For the 2020 draft, the Devils could end up with three first-round selections.

Not an awful spot.

New Jersey is also in the market for a head coach after finishing the 2019-20 campaign with interim bench boss Alain Nasreddine. There are some big fish out there and the Devils could reel one in — possibly a former Flyers head coach. According to a report Thursday by Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman in his latest 31 Thoughts column, New Jersey is eyeing at least four candidates for its vacancy.

Two of them spent time behind the Flyers' bench in 2009-10, when the club made a run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Per Friedman:

As for the coaching search, word is the Devils are eyeing at least four candidates. I believe that includes incumbent Alain Nasreddine, along with Gerard Gallant, Peter Laviolette and John Stevens. There may be one more. The wrinkle here is that [interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald] did the initial interviews, and will any of them want him as their boss should they be choice? It’s also possible ownership will want a conversation before any decision is made. It’s a unique time to try and hire someone.

Flyers fans had it difficult enough seeing Wayne Simmonds in Devils red for most of this season. Laviolette attempting to lead New Jersey back to playoff hockey for just the second time in nine seasons would be interesting to follow from afar. Nobody would doubt his ability to do it. Laviolette, who was fired by the Predators in January, has taken all four teams he has coached to the playoffs and three of them to the Stanley Cup Final, winning it all with the Hurricanes in 2006.

Stevens hasn't been an NHL head coach since 2018-19, when he was fired by the Kings 13 games into the season. He led the Flyers to back-to-back playoff appearances from 2007 to 2009 and was let go by the club 25 games into the 2009-10 campaign, opening the door for Laviolette's tenure in Philadelphia.

If Laviolette goes to the Devils, he'll have coached four teams now currently in the Metropolitan Division. Alain Vigneault (Rangers, Flyers), Barry Trotz (Capitals, Islanders) and John Tortorella (Rangers, Blue Jackets) have also coached multiple clubs in the division.

Laviolette would certainly give the division another heavy hitter behind the bench.

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2020 NHL playoffs: Flyers' outlook for round robin, first round

2020 NHL playoffs: Flyers' outlook for round robin, first round

The round-robin tournament of the NHL's 24-team return-to-play format will represent different kinds of importance for the fourth-seeded Flyers.

Firstly, they couldn't ask for a better tune-up ahead of their first-round series. They'll play each of the Eastern Conference's top three teams once before meeting their opening-round opponent.

Secondly, those dates with the East's best could help the Flyers climb even more. The total points accumulated in the round-robin tournament will determine the conference's seed Nos. 1-4. If there are ties after the set of games, which will feature regular-season overtime and shootout rules, the regular-season points percentages of each club will serve as the tiebreaker.

How could the Flyers fare in the round-robin portion and what would it ultimately mean for their outlook in the 24-team setup?

Here are three factors to note:

1. Can Flyers win round robin?

They shouldn't be considered heavy underdogs. The Flyers will be confident in their opportunity to improve their seed after going 2-1-0 against the top-seeded Bruins during the regular season and 3-0-1 vs. the third-seeded Capitals. The second-seeded Lightning were the one club that gave the Flyers trouble. The Flyers dropped two games in regulation to Tampa Bay, but one was a 1-0 defeat and the other was a chippy 5-3 loss with an empty-netter in the final 22 seconds.

The Flyers have a goalie who keeps them in games and a group that held its own with the fellow top seeds in major statistical categories:

Goals per game

Lightning — 3.47
Capitals — 3.42
Flyers — 3.29
Bruins — 3.24

Goals against per game

Bruins — 2.39
Flyers — 2.77
Lightning — 2.77
Capitals — 3.07

Power play percentage

Bruins — 25.2
Lightning — 23.1
Flyers — 20.8
Capitals — 19.4

Penalty kill percentage

Bruins — 84.3
Capitals — 82.6
Flyers — 81.8
Lightning — 81.4

2. Wait, would they want to climb?

It's an interesting question right now because the NHL and NHLPA are undetermined on the format for the first and second rounds, whether it be bracketed or reseeding after the qualifying round.

That's a huge question.

Say the Flyers stayed at No. 4 in a bracket-style scenario and the 12th-seeded Canadiens knocked off the fifth-seeded Penguins, the Flyers would face Montreal. On paper, that would be a pretty favorable matchup against the lowest seed in the East. Whereas the No. 1 seed in the conference would face the winner of the No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup.

If the league instead agrees to reseed, such a scenario would see the No. 1 seed face the Canadiens during the first round, whereas the Flyers, as the fourth seed, would get the highest remaining seed to advance from the qualifying round.

When/if the Flyers play round-robin games, the NHL will have made a decision on the format for the first and second rounds. Right now, just about everything is undecided for the Flyers.

3. The good thing?

The Flyers can't hurt themselves in the round robin. As the lowest seed of the four, they can only improve their seed. If the Flyers struggle, they stay put at No. 4 and at least played three competitive warmup games for their first-round series.

The Flyers went 22-8-5 against the Eastern Conference playoff field during the regular season, so they'll like their chances against whichever team they draw.

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