Rich Hofmann: Flyers rookie Couturier has a big job against Penguins' Malkin

"You have to take away their time and space and try to limit their offense," Sean Couturier said. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

PITTSBURGH - When Flyers coach Peter Laviolette called all of his rookies over for a quick chat at the Wednesday morning skate before their first playoff game, the exact words he spoke, of reassurance and confidence, are not known. The only certainty is that Laviolette did not pull out a tape measure and tell Ollie to get on Strap's shoulders and show the rest of them that, yes indeed, the stage might be bigger but the basket is still only 10 feet off the ground.

Still, it was kind of interesting when Sean Couturier said Thursday: "The nets are at the same place. The blue lines, red line, are at the same place. So nothing really changes. It's just another game."

Couturier is a fascinating piece of what the Flyers are attempting to do in this first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Although he is only 19 years old, one of his main tasks appears to be the care and feeding and shadowing and hindering of one of the great scorers on the planet, a gentleman named Evgeni Malkin.

It is the crowning challenge (so far) of a season few had a right to expect from this kid, a season of taking big defensive-zone faceoffs and killing tie-game-in-the-third-period penalties and marking some of the best players in the National Hockey League. In Game 1, Malkin had only three shots and no great scoring chances in the Flyers' breathtaking, back-from-the-dead victory - and the Penguins' power play was 0-for-3.

And somewhere in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, in a little town called Miramichi, a youth hockey coach/high school principal named Shawn Wood has been watching it all season, and was watching Wednesday night, and thinking this:

"He succeeds because of his maturity. He has always had this willingness to accept any role."

Couturier played for Wood as a 13-year-old in a midget league in which most of the players were 15, 16 and 17. It is an elite level of youth hockey, the first stop for Canadian players likely to make it to a major junior team. It is not unheard of for a 13-year-old to play at that level, and have a chance to be scouted for the first time, but it does require a special waiver.

Wood said Couturier was almost immediately his best player: second-line center, big body, go to the net, kill penalties, quarterback the power play from the point, eat minutes. The two-way defensive role would be introduced and refined later at the junior level, playing in Drummondville for now-Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher.

But all of that isn't what stands out to his old coach.

"It's interesting when you have a younger guy on the team," Wood said. "The older guys on the team resented these kids sometimes - but with Sean, they never did. They protected him. They rooted for him. They wanted to see him succeed. They saw how good he was and how good he was going to be.

"But the reason they liked him so much is that they saw that Sean was there for the team as well. He shared the puck. He carried the bags. He picked up tape. He never saw himself as above it all.

"He always had this maturity," Wood said. "He always had this composure, on and off the ice. We had a Christmas party at my house when he was here, just a spaghetti dinner for the team. After, they were leaving to go out for a while and Sean was the one who came back in the house to make sure that he had thanked us for the dinner, the only one who did. It's the kind of kid he is."

And now he is in the middle of his first playoff series, chasing Malkin. In Game 1, even without having the last change as the coach of the road team, Laviolette did an excellent job of getting Couturier out against Malkin. Out of Malkin's 24 shifts, Couturier was on the ice for most of 15 of them (and part of another) - and the Penguins' star just didn't seem to have a lot of room to operate.

This is the only matchup Laviolette really seemed intent on getting when he could, and Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma allowed him to do it. After all, Malkin is Malkin and, if you're his coach, you cannot be acting concerned about a 19-year-old kid chasing your star around the ice. You have to expect Malkin to step it up. You cannot be getting yourself involved in line-juggling gymnastics this early in the series. Malkin has to be Malkin for the Penguins to be the Penguins - and, no, he wasn't in the dressing room after practice Thursday when reporters were allowed in.

Couturier, though, was.

"It's not easy stopping him," he said. "You just try to do a good job not giving him too much time and space. I think last night we did an all-right job . . .

"He's one of the best, obviously. But whenever you play against [Washington's Alex] Ovechkin and those guys, they're all top guys in the world. They're big, strong on the puck - it's hard to get the puck off of them. But, like I said, you have to take away their time and space and try to limit their offense."

It is early yet, of course. You have to expect that Malkin won't be tied down forever. You have to expect rookies will have rookie moments, too. How they react to the ebb and the flow of this thing is all part of learning the Stanley Cup dance.

But you get the impression Sean Couturier might be a bit ahead of the game when he says: "The little things, I think they're important, especially now in the playoffs. Every little detail can make a difference. I try to take pride in what I do and take care of the little details."


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