Rookie Couturier has thrived in pressure situations

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Sean Couturier has exceeded expectations so far this season. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)

During training camp, Peter Laviolette and his coaching staff had important decisions to make.

Laviolette made a commitment to rookie Sean Couturier, who was then still flirting with a return to junior hockey after being nabbed by the Flyers with the No. 8 overall pick last June.

Laviolette could not promise Couturier a role on a scoring line, but he could guarantee a shot at being an important defensive piece in key moments.

"Tough situations needed to be filled," Laviolette said. "We made the commitment way back in training camp. We noticed he was effective in a role and he was a smart, two-way player. For his growth and development for our organization and team, it was important for him to be in those situations."

In game No. 1, against the defending Stanley Cup champs in Boston, Couturier got a taste of defensive-zone play late in the game. In game No. 3, against Vancouver at home, he got his first try at a defensive-zone faceoff with less than 2 minutes to play in a one-goal game.

When he wraps up his rookie season this week with game No. 82 in Pittsburgh, Couturier likely will do so in the same spot - taking the most important draws for the Flyers, just feet from Ilya Bryzgalov.

The role of the Flyers' rookies has been overwritten and overblown for much of the season, as most point to Philadelphia's league-leading 116 points by first-year players. But the fact that Couturier has continued to impress in a critical role, one often not defined by stats and has garnered enough trust from his Stanley Cup-winning coach in a playoff environment speaks volumes.

"From training camp, to the start of the year, to the middle of the year, to now, I think he's gained confidence, and I've gained confidence in him as a player to handle those bigger challenges that we're asking of him," Laviolette said. "You can go back to game No. 1 of the year . . . Game was on the line. Faceoff was in our end. Sean Couturier was on the ice."

Laviolette said he never wavered in his belief in Couturier - and has made no plans to alter his role as the importance of each game mounts. It will not be Claude Giroux or Max Talbot or Danny Briere counted on to win faceoffs in these big moments - it will still be Couturier. He is one of only two players from the 2011 draft class to have played more than 70 games this season.

"When you're in a situation where you're yanking players or waving them off, then the confidence sometimes goes the other way," Laviolette said. "They feel like they can't do things, they aren't good enough to be in certain situations."

Couturier, still only 19, has had a few hiccups along the way, something that was to be expected. Last week, for instance, he lost a draw with 5 seconds left in the first period against Tampa Bay. The puck ended up on Steven Stamkos' stick at the point and he gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead in the blink of an eye, with only 0.6 second left in the period.

"The more you take, the more comfortable you feel out there," Couturier said. "That's why when you only take three or four faceoffs, that's why it's hard to know your opponent and who you're going against. All the little details count. Faceoffs are big. If you start with the puck, it makes it easier to control the play - and it's time that the other team can't score."

Couturier has opportunities to perhaps pick the brain of housemate Briere.

"We'll watch a game at home and talk about a lot of different things, different situations," Briere said. "I think him being able to work in those situations is all about his demeanor and confidence. He's very mature. And his game is mature, which allows him to handle the pressure."

Coincidentally, Couturier credits Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher - his first coach in the QMJHL - with instilling in him the defensive responsibility and awareness, likely the only reason he will be battling this year for the Stanley Cup instead of the Memorial Cup.

"It's fun to see that [coach] has confidence in me," Couturier said. "It's fun to get recognized, to be able to be out there in different situations. I just try to work hard every day to do the little things right."

'Bryz' doubtful

After much speculation, it appears the Flyers will give Ilya Bryzgalov and the chip fracture in his right foot a chance to heal. General manager Paul Holmgren said Bryzgalov is doubtful for both games of the team's back-to-back set with Ottawa and Pittsburgh.

Bryzgalov practiced on Friday for the first time since getting hurt in warmups against Tampa Bay on Monday. He moved well in net and looked sharp and agile, with little hesitation or favoritism.

"I can't give you an exact date [for my return]," Bryzgalov said. "I can't predict the future. I don't have a crystal ball. I'm lucky it was not that bad, because I am tough and Russian."

Holmgren also upgraded defenseman Kimmo Timonen's status to probable for this weekend. Timonen, 36, did not travel with the Flyers to Toronto to rest his chronic lower-back problems.

Quotable

"He still has it, you know? He's so smart. And you see him at practice, he works on his game constantly. He really has a passion for it, a flare for it. And you can see when there's 15 players at one end of the ice after practice, he's down there with two or three getting more pucks and more opportunity to improve. He knows what he's doing. He loves it."

- Eric Lindros, 39, on 40-year-old Flyers forward Jaromir Jagr on Thursday after his skate with the team at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. The two were briefly linemates with the Rangers in 2003-04.

Contact Frank Seravalli at seravaf@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @DNFlyers. Read his blog, Frequent Flyers, at www.philly.com/frequentflyers.