Couturier emerging as fresh face for resilient Flyers' title hopes
PITTSBURGH -- Like the little girl in the movie serials decades ago, apparently the Philadelphia Flyers don't really mind being tied to the railroad tracks, waiting until they hear the train whistle blow and ultimately making their escape.
They give 'em little Nell and they give 'em a little hell.
Lulling the jumpy Pittsburgh Penguins into a false sense of security by spotting them a goal in the first 15 seconds and a pair of two-goal leads, Philadelphia rallied because that is what these Flyers do. They came back from deficits of 2-0 and 3-1. They came back from 4-3 in the final three seconds of the second period to tie the score on Sean Couturier's first goal of a hat-trick night. They came back from a soft Penguins goal early in the third period with Couturier's second of the game just 17 seconds later, stunning the Penguins into submission. Every time Pittsburgh turned the puck over -- officially five giveaways, including two by Sidney Crosby -- the Flyers would steer it past goalie Marc-André Fleury, who seemed to misplace his angles. Perhaps those angles are in the very place that the Penguins have stashed their confidence.
Jaromir Jagr, twirled around the ineffectual defenseman Ben Lovejoy midway through the third period, breaking his stick on the winner in the eventual 8-5 Flyers victory that pointed the series east across Pennsylvania for Game 3 Sunday afternoon and due south for a franchise that has the two best players in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and zero clue on how to nurse a lead. Philadelphia is 17-0 in series when it wins the first two games. There is only a tangential relationship with this team and the others who pressed that advantage for the Orange and Black, of course, but this is not pretty for Pittsburgh. Squandering a 3-0 first-period advantage at home in Game 1 was egregious enough, but these collapses have revealed a team that seems incapable of sucking the oxygen out of a game, a necessary trait for any group with Stanley Cup aspirations.
Not that the Flyers were immaculate in a game that screamed "1984" -- the Oilers, not Orwell -- but it hardly mattered. The Flyers, who had fallen behind Pittsburgh by at least two goals in five straight games and yet managed to win four of them, had gone eight years between playoff hat tricks.
This time, they waited 102 seconds.
Claude Giroux tapped a puck into an empty net with 6.9 seconds remaining. This created a complementary hat trick. Couturier already had his third goal of the game, courtesy of a Giroux dish with 1:49 remaining, mere seconds after a one-hand-on-the-stick lunge by Pittsburgh's James Neal almost had tied the score.
Giroux is routinely brilliant -- he finished with six points -- but Couturier might be emerging as the new face of the franchise. In truth, he looks an awful lot like the old face of the Flyers, Bobby Clarke, at least when neither have their front teeth in. (Couturier reinserted his dentures for post-match interviews, a pity given the throwback nature of this 13-goal game.) Couturier is a mere 19, one of six rookies coach Peter Laviolette routinely employs. There is a general sense that if you come back in two years, the remade Flyers -- which boldly ditched stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter before the season and reshaped a team on the fly -- will really be something special.
If they find a way to get into the games with a little more alacrity, this team could be special in the eight weeks.
Couturier is already special. He won't win the Calder Trophy because he had only 13 goals and 27 points during the season but as Giroux notes, "He's a teenager and already our best defensive player." Laviolette tested him early, using Couturier on a defensive zone faceoff in the season opener against Boston in the final minute of a one-goal game, a draw that he won. "There's always a feeling out process with players," Laviolette said last night. "We started giving him responsibility in training camp, and he answered the bell. He started off playing eight or nine minutes, then 10 or 12. And even when he was playing 10 or 12, these weren't minutes we were trying to hide him and hope he'd get off the ice. These were hard minutes. With about 15 or 20 games to go, we started utilizing him in the role in which he's used now. And he hasn't let us down."
The role in the first two games in Pittsburgh, whenever possible given the Penguins' home-ice advantage, was as a shutdown center against Malkin, merely the NHL's best player during the season. Through two games Malkin has had a pair of second assists. They both on the Penguins' Game 2 power play that was seeking a better balance -- Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma broke up Malkin and Crosby, moving Crosby to the second unit -- but not this kind of balance: the Penguins scored two goals with the man-advantage and gave up two, first to Max Talbot and later to the estimable Giroux. Couturier was not on the ice killing penalties on either Pittsburgh power play goal. Malkin finished minus 4.
"Just the victory," Couturier answered in French when he was asked about his three goals compared to Malkin's barren goal column. "We know they'll come out hard (in Game 3) and have to be ready."
"Not the start we were looking for," Couturier later said in English, proving that he can speak in clichés in more than one language. "But it was a big win tonight ... After the first shift or two, it's just like any other game. Go out there and have fun."
He was having a much better time than flummoxed Pittsburgh. And if the Flyers show up on time for Game 3, it might be getting late awfully early in the playoffs for the vaunted Penguins.