Sean Couturier was a 19-year-old rookie the last time he played against the Pittsburgh Penguins in a playoff series. His assignment in 2012, which is likely to be Nolan Patrick’s assignment this time around, was to act as a fly in the ointment of Pens sniper Evgeni Malkin.
He was so good at it that it pivoted a series the Flyers were supposed to lose in their favor. Malkin had eight points in the Flyers’ six-game surprise win but finished at minus-1. Couturier scored a hat trick in Game 2 and finished the series plus-4.
Back then his age and experience were the exception on a veteran-filled Flyers team that included 34-year-old Danny Briere, 36-year-old Kimmo Timonen, and, lest we forget, 39-year-old Jaromir Jagr. That won’t be the case this time around.
There will be another 19-year-old on Malkin, now 31, as much as possible. But there will be plenty of 20-somethings playing alongside rookie Nolan Patrick this time around.
Oskar Lindblom, also a rookie, will be one of his linemates. Another rookie, defenseman Travis Sanheim, will play important minutes as a second-unit defenseman. Ivan Provorov, 21, will play beside third-year pro Shayne Gostisbehere as the first defense pairing. And 21-year-old Travis Konecny, with his speed and playmaking abilities, will attempt to give the Flyers’ third line a degree of danger it did not possess for much of this season.
And if any of the D-men go down, 23-year-old rookie Robert Hagg, who played significant minutes in 70 games this season, will be first man up.
So what will Couturier tell them about playoff hockey?
“Obviously there’s more on the line,’’ he said. “Every little detail matters. Whether it’s blocking a shot, chipping a puck out, winning a faceoff. All those little things can make a difference in winning a series.
“And yet you can’t overthink it. The red lines, the blue lines, the goals are still in the same place. It’s the same game out there, just with more at stake.’’
‘Evolution of a player’
Easily said. Not easily done. Not for Lindblom, whose unexpected struggles to adapt to the smaller North American ice surface required an extended tutorial at the American Hockey League level. Not for Sanheim, who made this team out of training camp but fell out of favor in late December after a series of costly mistakes and an overall tentativeness to his game.
Maybe not even for Konecny, whose explosive second-half — he finished with 23 goals and 24 assists — powered several key victories. The difference? “Taking care of pucks,’’ he said. “Playing more defensive minded.’’
TAKE. A. SEAT.
And Travis Konecny… take a bow. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/XSFl8JcbB4
— NHL (@NHL) April 1, 2018
“You’re seeing the evolution of a young player getting better,’’ Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said. “This is a young guy who still has some growth to do. But he’s understanding the pro game more, he‘s understanding playing in a team concept more. When these young players come up they’ve all had the puck their whole lives. And there’s parts of the game where they don’t get it. Especially the high-level guys. T.K. had the puck his whole life. Thirteen years old he probably had the puck the whole game. Now it’s, `OK, I’m not going to have the puck the whole game, there’s other areas I can improve on. And to his credit he’s taken a lot of pride in doing things the right way, playing the game the right way.’’
Said Konecny, “I think I let that junior mentality rule when I first came into the league. It’s hard. You’re used to having the puck, creating opportunities every single shift. But for now it’s a lot about learning how to play without the puck, reading the play, slow the game down a little bit. I’m just trying to simplify my game, limit mistakes but keep my creativity there. It’s tough. But you’re not in juniors anymore.’’
For Lindblom, who played among men in Sweden’s top professional league, buying in wasn’t the problem. Feeling as if he belonged was. Shortly after the Phantoms season began, he was placed on the same line with Matt Read, an NHL veteran and someone who has gone through his own trials. Read gave him plenty of hockey advice – getting his shot off quicker, tightening the spacing that is required in the North American game. But, said Lindblom, “it was more about confidence. He was always trying to talk me into getting more comfortable.
“We talked a lot: Hockey, life, how it works up here. He was a good guy to have around. He helped me a lot.’’
Lindblom has only two goals and four assists in his 23 NHL games, but he’s a plus-4 on a second line with Patrick and Jake Voracek — a line that has produced big goals via his work.
Said Read, “He’s seeing the ice better now, knowing he has less time with the puck. Obviously with Jake and Paddy they’re creating opportunities every night. And he’s excelled.’’
For Patrick, Lindblom’s promotion and Voracek’s presence have coincided with his finally returning to full health following two core-muscle surgeries over the last two years. He finished with 13 goals and 17 assists — Couturier had 13 goals and 14 assists his rookie year. Eight of Patrick’s 13 goals have come over the last 24 games of this season. In the regular-season final, he registered seven shots.
“I missed a lot of hockey last year,’’ he said. “And then I missed a lot of summer of training. So a lot of it was getting back to where I was. And then trying to take a step forward from there to get confident. There’s a lot of steps that go into it.
“I think at the start of the year I didn’t have the speed that I wanted to have. I think I’ve been focusing on playing fast and I think it has been improving throughout the year.’’
How much? Well Flyers coach Dave Hakstol showed confidence using him a lot against Malkin in the two games the teams played in March – just as Peter Laviolette once showed confidence in Couturier. But Malkin’s not 25 anymore. And Patrick is still just 19.
“Should be a fun series,’’ Patrick said. “I’m more excited than nervous, honestly.’’
|1||at Pittsburgh||Weds., April 11||7 p.m.||NBCSN|
|2||at Pittsburgh||Friday, April 13||7 p.m.||NBCSN|
|3||at Flyers||Sunday, April 15||3 p.m.||NBC|
|4||at Flyers||Weds., April 18||7 p.m.||NBCSN|
|5*||at Pittsburgh||Friday, April 20||TBD||TBD|
|6*||at Flyers||Sunday, April 22||TBD||TBD|
|7*||at Pittsburgh||Tuesday, April 24||TBD||TBD|