Sean Couturier returned and helped save the Flyers’ season

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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.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

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.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Previewing the 2019-20 Montreal Canadiens

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Maybe slightly worse, but largely the same.

Montreal brought in Ben Chiarot and Keith Kinkaid while letting Antti Niemi and Jordie Benn walk. They also traded away Andrew Shaw.

Aside from a Sebastian Aho offer sheet that had little chance of succeeding, it was a very quiet offseason for Marc Bergevin.

Strengths: Depth, five-on-five play, and possibly strong starting goaltending if Carey Price continues getting back on track.

Claude Julien really had this group firing on all cylinders last season, which had to make missing the playoffs extra-painful. Still, it’s generally easier to reproduce even-strength success than it is to shoot or stop pucks at a high level, so that’s nice. This team can send wave after wave of forwards at you, and their top four of Shea Weber, Brett Kulak, Victor Mete, and Jeff Petry is better than a lot of people realize.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, the Canadiens had to be dominant at even-strength last season because their power play was so putrid.

You might be able to chalk it up to the larger feeling that the Canadiens have some very nice forwards, especially Brendan Gallagher, but seem to lack that super-duper-star. The power play might be better in 2019-20 by sheer luck, but personnel-wise, they didn’t really address the problem during the offseason.

It sure looks like Montreal will need to lean heavily on Price, as Kinkaid doesn’t strike me as that much of an upgrade over Niemi, if he even is an upgrade.

(Nice use of emojis, though.)

[MORE: X-factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Canadiens front office members (especially Bergevin, but also Julien) have weathered some of the bigger storms, as while Montreal missed the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they generally exceeded expectations in 2018-19. Even so Montreal’s missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, and hasn’t won a series since 2014-15. Julien is an excellent coach, but professional sports aren’t always fair to coaches, and things could really heat up if a lot of Canadiens follow career years by plummeting back to their lesser, past selves. A rating of 7 feels about right.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Max Domi, and Carey Price.

If Kotkaniemi ends up not being worthy of the third overall pick of 2018, it looks like that will only come down to people merely having a preference, for say, fourth pick Brady Tkachuk — and so on. The point is that Kotkaniemi was brilliant as a rookie, and considering limited usage, could be capable of even more than an already-solid 34 points in 79 games. Honestly, Julien owes it to this team to experiment with just how quickly Kotkaniemi can grow. He aced his first test in the NHL.

Entering 2019-20, a big question is: will the Max Domi we see look more like the 2018-19 sensation, or the 2017-18 Coyotes forward who needed four empty-netters to reach nine goals? Domi’s entering a contract year, so if he can show last season wasn’t a fluke, he can go from a healthy raise from his $3.15M AAV to a huge jump.

Price is basically always fascinating in Montreal: the franchise, $10.5M goalie in a city that’s watched some of the best netminders to ever play the game. Can Price be dominant at 32? The Habs are counting on it.

Playoffs or Lottery: Montreal was unlucky that the East was pretty stout at the playoff-level in 2018-19, and figure to face big obstacles again this coming season. Not only will the Atlantic’s top three figure to be tough (Lightning, Bruins, Maple Leafs), but the Panthers made investments to be hugely improved, too. For all we know, it may all come down to the Panthers vs. the Canadiens, especially if the Metropolitan Division isn’t a total flop in providing wild-card competition.

There’s quite a bit to like with this team, so playoffs seem more likely than the lottery — although we also know that this tough market can also turn the volume up on any slump.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Previewing the 2019-20 Florida Panthers

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Much better … and they’re paying a premium to do so, what with Sergei Bobrovsky‘s risky seven-year, $70 million contract.

The changes in net didn’t stop there, with Roberto Luongo retiring and James Reimer being traded away. Joel Quenneville is the other big-name addition as head coach, while the Panthers also paid a pretty penny for Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman.

If nothing else, the Panthers proved that they’re willing to spend money.

Strengths: The Panthers entered 2018-19 with optimism for a simple reason: they have some great, young forwards. Aleksander Barkov is the headliner, but Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, and (if healthy) Vincent Trocheck are all excellent players, most of them signed on bargain deals.

On paper, there’s a pretty big drop-off from the top six to the two lower forward lines, even if Connolly ends up being a boost for Florida’s depth. One thing that can swing the depth battle a bit would be promising prospects graduating. Can Henrik Borgstrom take that next step? Might Owen Tippett leap to become a full-time NHL winger? Aleksi Heponiemi was already sent down to the AHL, but there are others who might win training camp battles, and they might just move the needle in playoff bubbles for the Cats.

Weaknesses: Florida’s defense is expensive, but not necessarily worth the money. That was an uncomfortable undercurrent to their goaltending struggles last season: how much of this came down to putting netminders in a position to fail? Stralman had some great highs during his underrated career, yet his play dropped off badly recently, so he might be yet another Panthers blueliner who fails to justify his price tag.

This is an area where Florida hopes that the combination of Bobrovsky’s often-elite goaltending mixes with Quenneville’s system to keep the puck out of the net, while that offense hogs the puck. There are situations where that juggling act might fail, and there are also doubts about Florida’s backup options if Bob struggles and/or gets injured.

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Quenneville hopes to prove that he still has it, and the Panthers must be feeling impatient after years of disappointments, particularly after spending big bucks to get better. Coach Q isn’t bulletproof, but he’s pretty safe with this being his first season. Let’s call it a 2 on the seat scale.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Bobrovsky, Hoffman, and Trocheck.

After some drama and a final season of peaks and valleys in Columbus, Bob got his wish. He’s out from under Torts, and he got paid. Excuse me, he got paid. Now it’s time to prove that he’s still a Vezina-level goalie, even as he turns 31 on Sept. 20.

Hoffman, meanwhile, is chasing his big payday, as the sniper enters a contract year where his next deal can really climb or fall depending upon how he performs in 2019-20.

Trocheck has been a gem for the Panthers, yet it’s unclear how well he might perform not that far removed from a ghastly injury last season. It’s impressive that he was able to return in 2018-19, but can he find that pre-injury game that was so all-around brilliant?

Playoffs or Lottery: They’re closer to the playoffs than the lottery.

It’s not out of line to paint a picture of a huge jump, with health, Bobrovsky’s goaltending, strong top scorers, and Quenneville coalescing into a new-look contender. There are plenty of ways things can go wrong, too, including Bob having another so-so season like he did in 2018-19.

More than anything else, the Panthers might just face long odds to climb into the Atlantic’s top three, as they’re less of a sure thing than the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins. That doesn’t mean Florida can’t dislodge one or more of that seemingly mighty group, but it’s easier to picture them battling for a wild-card spot.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lightning still the team to beat in NHL’s Eastern Conference

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Getting swept in the first round wasn’t enough to knock the Tampa Bay Lightning off the mountaintop.

After finishing 21 points ahead of everyone else during the 2018-19 regular season, the Lightning are again Stanley Cup favorites and the team to beat in an ever-improving Eastern Conference. With a stacked roster that includes goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, the road to the final goes through Tampa Bay.

”They got a young goaltender who’s getting better and better every year (and) their D corps is pretty solid,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. ”Their forward group is so skilled and solid that I would still say it’s Tampa.”

That’s no knock on the Boston Bruins, who lost Game 7 of the Cup Final to St. Louis. Or the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have plenty of Cup-winning experience. The Lightning performed some salary cap gymnastics, kept their core intact and aren’t shying away from the well-deserved hype.

”Expectations are high: Of course for everyone the main goal is to win the Cup,” Vasilevskiy said. ”We’re more mature now. We have more experience. … I think the last few seasons people (say), ‘Tampa will win the Cup 100 percent’ every time. That’s the expectation, but the reality is every team can win the Cup. We’re playing in the best league in the world, so anything can happen.”

With Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto and Florida, the Atlantic Division looks like murderer’s row. The Bruins got through only after coming back from a 3-2, first-round deficit against Toronto and aren’t feeling cocky.

”Our division’s been great the past couple years and there’s no end in sight there,” Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”We feel that we have to go through Toronto, we have to go through Tampa, we have to go through Florida and everybody.”

The Panthers signed two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and hired three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville to take the next step. Across the East in the Metropolitan Division, the improved New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are rejuvenated with some big additions.

”The Rangers signed elite winger Artemi Panarin, traded for top defender Jacob Trouba and drafted Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko, while the Devils got Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and selected center Jack Hughes first overall.

OLD GUARD

Pittsburgh still has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Washington still has Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and yet each team has undergone a transformation since last lifting the Cup. The Penguins look closer to falling down the East standings at this point, and Crosby acknowledged there are some question marks.

”We’re a little bit younger, and in some ways we’re maybe a little bit older, too,” Pittsburgh’s captain said. ”We’re younger, so I think we’re going to be probably a quicker team, probably an energized team and we’ll have some guys that are pretty excited to be in the positions they’re in. We’ll have to see what we can do with that.”

The Capitals believe their championship window is still open.

”We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”That’s the culture that we’ve established now and now we need to continue to build it.”

CHIP ON SHOULDER

Columbus will undoubtedly take a step back after losing Panarin and Bobrovsky and letting trade deadline pickups Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel walk in free agency. Much like the New York Islanders a year ago after losing John Tavares to Toronto in free agency, the Blue Jackets plan to use their personnel defections as a rallying point.

”There’s no secret losing those guys probably hurts a little bit, but we’re bringing back a lot of our core guys,” leading goal scorer Cam Atkinson said. ”We have to come in with a chip on our shoulder and prove a lot of people wrong, but I think that it should fuel your fire to prove people wrong.”

Columbus will rely heavily on goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

”The biggest question is goaltending,” Atkinson said. ”That’s going to be the biggest thing. The St. Louis Blues won with a rookie goaltender coming in in the middle of the season and look what happens to that team.”

The Islanders let starting goalie Robin Lehner depart in free agency and replaced him with Semyon Varlamov. Coach Barry Trotz’s structure remains, but no one’s going to underestimate them this time around.

LETDOWN BRUIN?

No team since Pittsburgh in 2009 has won the Cup after losing in the final the previous year. Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said the ”taste is still there” from the Game 7 defeat at home.

”It will probably always be there,” Krug said. ”It’s how you manage it individually to use it as motivation.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

It could be neck and neck between the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers for the final playoff spot. Carolina will need stable goaltending to duplicate a surprise run that ended in the East final. Philadelphia added coach Alain Vigneault, center Kevin Hayes and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but remains a bit of a mystery amid inconsistent play.

The Buffalo Sabres will get a boost from new coach Ralph Krueger but more rebuilding is likely. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin wants the Sabres to ”trust the process,” which is ongoing not just in Buffalo but also Montreal and Detroit before those teams can target a postseason run. Ottawa’s long-term rebuild should set them up for a top draft pick.

Agent says Laine, Rantanen ‘not close’ to new contracts

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The list of RFAs without contracts is getting smaller, but that doesn’t mean that every big situation is on the verge of being settled.

Agent Mike Liut represents two of biggest RFAs remaining: Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets) and Mikko Rantanen (Colorado Avalanche), so it’s significant that he gave a not-so-optimistic update about their negotiations during a Wednesday interview on Sportsnet 650.

Around the 4:00 mark of that interview, Liut admitted that “we’re not close,” while adding that “nothing has gone on that we didn’t anticipate.”

Another key note in the Liut interview comes later on, as he largely shoots down the notion that Laine and/or Rantanen will do much to pursue contracts with European teams that include out clauses. Liut’s explanation was pretty simple: said teams might not want to deal with the potential disruption of Laine or Rantanen briefly being a part of their teams, only to leave (although injuries could change the arithmetic).

Anyway, let’s break things down a bit for both Rantanen and Laine.

Rantanen = Marner?

Liut acknowledged that he views Mitch Marner as the best comparable for Rantanen, pointing out that they both bring great strengths as playmakers, even if they go about doing so in different ways (Rantanen being at around 225 lbs., Marner … not). It’s not shocking that Marner is mentioned for Rantanen, in particular, and it presents an interesting challenge for the Avalanche.

Via Cap Friendly, the Avs currently have about $15.62 million in cap space, so theoretically they could accommodate an AAV in Marner’s $10.893M range. In last week’s edition of 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman mentioned that Colorado would prefer that Rantanen not make $4M more than Nathan MacKinnon, whose ridiculous bargain $6.3M cap hit runs through 2022-23.

Rantanen will turn 23 on Oct. 29. So far in his career, he’s generated 80 goals and 209 points in 239 games (.87 points per game). Marner (turned 22 in May) has 67 goals and 224 points in 241 games, which translates to .93 points per game.

If people are going to downgrade Marner’s big 2018-19 season because of John Tavares‘ influence, then they can make a similar claim about MacKinnon’s benefit to Rantanen. Since Rantanen began his career with nine regular-season games in 2015-16, he’s played 1,632:31 even-strength minutes with MacKinnon, and just 552:24 without MacKinnon, according to Natural Stat Trick.

MacKinnon and Rantanen clearly have a symbiotic relationship, but it’s nonetheless difficult to fully grasp how much Rantanen is worth on his own.

Of course, it’s not the worst problem to have, as Colorado is getting those cheap years with MacKinnon, and we know that the MacKinnon + Rantanen combo is dynamite.

Some unrest with Laine

Speaking of linemates, that talking point flared up regarding Laine and the Jets, as the sniper hasn’t been able to stick with the combo of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler with much consistency. Instead, his most frequent even-strength linemate has been Bryan Little.

His recent Finnish interview with iltalehti.fi created quite a stir in that regard.

To some extent, Laine has a point. He likely would have ended up with more than 30 goals and 50 points in 2018-19 (a significant drop from 2017-18’s 44 goals and 70 points) if he spent the majority of his shifts with Scheifele and/or Wheeler.

Of course, it’s fair for the Jets to wonder if they’d be better off loading up in that way — and not just to spread the offensive wealth.

Frankly, the criticisms of Laine’s two-way play aren’t totally out of line, at least when you’re debating just how much he should be paid. Consider his troubling multi-season RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey for one quick look at his defensive warts:

According to Cap Friendly, the Jets have about $15.45M in cap space, which sounds promising until you realize that Winnipeg is looking to lock down not just Laine and Kyle Connor. One wonders if Colorado may be OK with Rantanen’s contract negotiations slipping into the regular season (maybe bumping down his cap hit long-term, like the Maple Leafs did with William Nylander), but TSN’s Frank Seravalli noted last week that the Jets would be better off getting one or both of Rantanen and Laine done before the regular season kicks in.

Of course, the uncertainty surrounding Dustin Byfuglien’s future adds another wrinkle to the Jets’ already complicated dealings.

***

Each situation is different, and challenging in its own way.

Regardless, this figures to be a lucrative stretch for Liut. Puck Pedia places Vladimir Tarasenko‘s $7.5M AAV as the highest AAV of any active Liut client, so even if the Jets and Avalanche “win” discussions with Laine and Rantanen, it’s likely that Liut will see a new top two once the smoke clears.

What’s a fair price for each player?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.