PITTSBURGH — After four straight blowouts to open their first-round series, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers finally played a close game on Friday night. Thanks to a goalie switch that saw Michal Neuvirth replace Brian Elliott, and a couple of smaller lineup changes, as well as the return of one of their best players — Sean Couturier — the Flyers were able to keep their season alive with a 4-2 win to force a Game 6 in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon. (3 p.m. ET, NBC).
Couturier missed Game 4 due to a lower-body injury, but was able to return to the lineup on Friday to play the role of hero, scoring the game-winning goal with 1:18 to play in the third period.
The goal came after the Penguins were sloppy with the puck in their own zone and failed to clear on two different occasions, allowing the puck to come to a wide open Couturier at the blue line. From there, he fired a long-distance shot that deflected off of Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin and into the back of the net.
Given that he was limited to just 16:55 of ice-time and did not play on the power play at all, it was pretty clear that he was not anywhere close to 100 percent. Just consider that during the regular season he averaged more than 21 minutes per game and was playing more than 24 minutes in the first three games of the series. He refused to say after the game how he was feeling (he was twice asked to put a percentage on it and refused both times) but it was obviously enough to make an impact in what was to this point the biggest game of the Flyers’ season.
“I was just trying to take it one shift at a time, win your one-on-one battles, keep it simple,” Couturier said when asked what his mindset was. “Don’t want to overdo things or overthink the game. That was kind of the mentality I had, just keep it simple, keep my shifts short, make sure I was ready to go and fresh for the next shift.”
While his game-winning goal will be the moment that everybody remembers until puck drop on Sunday, it was his play on the penalty kill — and the Flyers’ penalty kill as a whole — that was probably the difference in the game.
Heading into this series the special teams matchup was going to be an important one to watch because the Penguins had the NHL’s best power play during the regular season. The Flyers, conversley, had one of the league’s worst penalty kills. Throughout the first four games when the Penguins power play clicked — and when the Flyers gave them ample opportunity to allow it to click — the Penguins won decisively.
On Friday, it most definitely did not click. And just as was the case in Game 2, the Flyers were able to win based on the strength of that penalty kill.
More than 40 percent of Couturier’s ice-time on Friday night came with the Flyers shorthanded. During that time he helped the Flyers not only go a perfect 5-for-5, but also score a shorthanded goal and completely shut down the Penguins’ power play, limiting the unit to just four shots on goal. At one point in the second period the Penguins had a 4-on-3 power play for more than a minute-and-a-half and not only failed to score, they failed to get a shot on goal and only attempted one (it was blocked, naturally, by Couturier). Couturier was the lone Flyer forward on the ice for almost the entire situation.
“We did a good job, but they had a lot of chances,” said Couturier of the Flyers’ PK. “[Neuvirth] bailed us out a few times, and we have to be more disciplined. That is too many penalties. We put ourselves in trouble because they can take over the game when they go on the power play. It’s tough to gain momentum. Tonight we fought hard, found a way to win.”
From almost the minute he arrived in the NHL at the start of the 2011-12 season Couturier has been one of the league’s top defensive forwards, even if he wasn’t always recognized for it in awards voting. Even though it is a defensive award, it still almost always goes to a player that also has huge offensive numbers. After getting elevated to the team’s top-line this season and playing alongside Claude Giroux, he went on to have a breakout year offensively that saw him shatter all of his previous career highs, scoring 31 goals and recording 76 total points. On Wednesday, it was announced that he is, for the first time, a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward.
“Him being in the lineup gives a boost to everybody just because of what he means to our hockey team,” said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol. “At the end of the day it comes down to going out and doing the job. He did that. Obviously he played a few less minutes tonight than he normally does, but I thought he did a heck of a job, especially on the PK, where was a huge factor for us. His play down the stretch was great, not just on the game-winning goal.”
It was not just Couturier’s return to the lineup that made an impact for the Flyers on Friday.
Hakstol also made a number of lineup changes (Dale Weise and Robert Hagg in; Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom out) including the decision to go with Neuvirth in net after he had played just 59 minutes of hockey over the past three months.
It turned out to be a huge call.
After getting horrendous goaltending in three of the first four games, Neuvirth stopped 30 of the 32 shots he faced on Friday. The two goals he did allow were not great (a bad wraparound goal to Bryan Rust; a shot through the five-hole by Jake Guentzel off the rush) but he did end up making the save of the night in the final minute of regulation, just moments after Couturier’s goal to give the Flyers the lead, when he robbed Sidney Crosby on the doorstep.
With that, a series that has been defined by blowouts and lopsided scores is now a little more interesting as the Flyers return home and look to push it to a seventh game.
If they get goaltending and penalty kill work like they did on Friday, they will.