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.

NHL, NHLPA agree on protocols to resume season

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The NHL and NHL Players’ Association agreed Sunday on protocols to resume the season, a major step toward the return of hockey this summer.

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press there was an agreement on protocols for training camps and games and the sides are still negotiating an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, which is crucial to the process.

A person with knowledge of the situation said the return-to-play protocols would only go into effect if each side votes to approve the full package of the CBA extension and return-to-play agreement. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because CBA talks are still ongoing.

To complete a return, two-thirds of the league’s board of governors and majorities of the players’ executive committee and full membership must vote in favor.

If everything is ratified, it will end a pandemic-forced shutdown that began in mid-March. Games would resume in late July or early August with 24 teams taking part in an expanded playoffs, finishing with the Stanley Cup being awarded in October.

The agreement was first reported by TSN.

The 47 pages of protocols outline the health and safety measures the league and players agreed to after several weeks of negotiations. Any player has until 5 p.m. EDT on Tuesday to notify his team if he’s choosing to opt out of participating in training camp and games, with an additional deadline expected after ratification of the agreement.

For those playing, each team is limited to 30 skaters and an unlimited amount of goaltenders for camp and total roster of up to 31 players for games. Each team is limited to 52 personnel in its game city, a group that must include two trainers, a doctor and compliance officer in addition players, coaches and management.

They are expected to be quarantined from the general public during play at least for the qualifying and first two traditional playoff rounds. Family members will be permitted to join when play is moved to one city for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

All team and league employees plus hotel, restaurant and arena staff coming in contact with players will be tested daily in the two ”hub” cities.

One player’s positive coronavirus test result is not expected to shut down play entirely. The league has said it would isolate any player or staff member who tests positive, acknowledging an outbreak would threaten the remainder of the season.

”The players will be pretty well-protected from being exposed,” Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said during a conference call in June. ”It’s going to be a completely different way for you all and us watching hockey and being around a team because players will be really well protected throughout the process.”

The protocols include a provision for Commissioner Gary Bettman in consultation with NHLPA executive director Don Fehr to postpone, delay or cancel games in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Assuming the protocols are approved, teams are expected to open training camps July 13 before traveling to the two hub cities for games. Players have been able to skate and train off-ice in voluntary, small-group workouts since June 8 – nearly three months after hockey was halted March 12 with 189 regular-season games remaining.

Returning for the playoffs is seen as a stirring victory for the NHL, which like other top leagues faced the prospect of losing millions more without the television revenue tied to the postseason. There were deep concerns about canceling the rest of the season and word of positive tests didn’t help: 26 players since June 8, in addition to almost a dozen before that.

Boston defenseman Matt Grzelcyk called the positive test results ”eye-opening” but expected. A few players expressed concerns in recent weeks about the uncertainty surrounding a return.

”We have obviously a unique situation right now,” Montreal goaltender Carey Price said. ”The NHL and the NHLPA are trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. Moving forward I’d like to play, but we have a lot of questions that need to be answered and a lot of scenarios that need to be covered.”

If the protocols and an CBA extension cover those scenarios for enough owners and players, there will be a path forward to hand out the Stanley Cup. Only twice since 1893 has the Cup not been awarded: in 1919, when the final couldn’t be completed because of the Spanish flu pandemic, and 2005 when the season was wiped out by a lockout.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports