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.

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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 stars praise Alex Ovechkin as he hits 700 career goals

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There’s a new member of the 700-goal club and his name is Alex Ovechkin. At 4:50 of the third period against the Devils on Saturday, the Capitals captain fired one by Mackenzie Blackwood to reach the historic mark.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 699 in an OT loss to the Canadiens after five straight games without a point. No. 8 controlled a rolling puck after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone, then fired a wrist shot past Carey Price.

The Washington Capitals captain is now the eighth member of the exclusive NHL club. He joins Mike Gartner (708), Phil Esposito (717), Marcel Dionne (731), Brett Hull (741), Jaromir Jagr (766), Gordie Howe (801), and Wayne Gretzky (894).

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Ovechkin has been doing this since he broke in the league in 2005 and his peers continue to marvel at his goal-scoring exploits.

NBC Sports recently sat down with T.J. Oshie, Patrick Kane, Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby, David Pastrnak, Max Pacioretty, Nathan MacKinnon, and John Carlson to talk about Ovechkin’s career and his pursuit of Gretzky’s all-time record.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Alex Ovechkin scores 700th goal vs. Devils with a blast

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He did it. Alex Ovechkin scored his 700th career goal on Saturday as the Capitals faced the Devils.

Ovechkin scored his historic goal from the opposite faceoff circle from his typical “office.” It was a significant goal, tying Washington 2-2 with New Jersey a few minutes into the third period. Ovechkin reaching his 700th goal with such gusto really adds to the experience.

(Watch video of Ovechkin scoring his 700th goal in the video above.)

Ovechkin makes history with 700th goal

It marks his second goal in as many games after sitting at 698 goals for five agonizing contests. Well, they were agonizing for those anxiously awaiting number 700. Ovechkin’s response was basically “Whatever.” Ovechkin scored 30 of his 700 career goals against the Devils.

Ovechkin joins an illustrious group including Wayne Gretzky (894), Gordie Howe (801), Jaromir Jagr (766), Brett Hull (741), Marcel Dionne (731), Phil Esposito (717) and Mike Gartner (708). Ovechkin became the second player to score 700+ goals with a single team, as Howe scored 786 with the Red Wings before continuing a hockey journey that eventually included playing alongside his sons.

Jagr was the most recent player to reach 700 on March 1, 2014.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 699 in an OT loss to the Canadiens after five straight games without a point. No. 8 controlled a rolling puck after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone, then fired a wrist shot past Carey Price.

Ovechkin, 34, became the second youngest and fastest player (1144 games) to score 700 goals, trailing Gretzky who was 29 years old (886 games) when he scored his 700th in January 1991 as a member of the Los Angeles Kings.

Earlier this month, Ovi also became only the second player to score 40 goals in 11 seasons, trailing Gretzky’s record of 12. Ovechkin now has 42 goals in 60 games this season, giving himself a shot at another Maurice Richard Trophy.

The Devils ended up beating the Capitals 3-2. Maybe Washington can get back on track now that Ovechkin got this 700th goal out of the way? Their struggles aren’t on Ovechkin, but the Caps are struggling as a team nonetheless. (They have to be pleased with Pittsburgh losing to the Sabres on Saturday, though.)

Ovechkin’s quest for 700th goal:

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.

Islanders honor John Tonelli by retiring his No. 27

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John Tonelli’s No. 27 has been raised to the rafters at Nassau Coliseum, joining some of his former teammates from the New York Islanders’ Stanley Cup dynasty.

Tonelli, known as a gritty player who worked to get the puck in the corners, became the seventh player to have his number retired by the team when he was honored before Friday night’s 4-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings.

“Tonight is not about me,” Tonelli said. “It’s all about giving thanks to my extended family, each and every one of you here and at home tonight. All of you have played a starring role in the journey that has brought this extremely honored and humbled man before you. Tonight is about my teammates, some of whom are standing with me. … I feel incredibly honored to have skated alongside each of you and to be part of the success that we achieved as a team.”

Tonelli is the first Islander to get his number retired since Bryan Trottier (19) in 2001. Dennis Potvin (5), Clark Gillies (9), Mike Bossy (22), Bobby Nystrom (23) and Billy Smith (31) had their numbers retired previously. They were all part of the teams that won four straight Stanley Cup championships from 1980-83.

Five of the six were in attendance for Tonelli’s big night. Bossy was unable to make it, but a congratulatory video message was played in the arena.

The 62-year-old Tonelli also was joined by his wife, Lauren, sons Jordan and Zach, and his mother, Joy. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was in attendance as well.

Tonelli, who had 206 goals and 338 assists in 594 games over eight seasons with the Islanders, was shown a bronze plaque that will be displayed in the team’s Hall of Fame. Islanders owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin presented him with a framed No. 27 jersey and painted portrait by Tony Capparelli among other gifts.

In a speech that lasted about 15 minutes, Tonelli thanked coaches from his WHA and juniors days, as well as former teammates for sharing in his success. He also praised Al Arbour, the late longtime coach of the Islanders, who has a banner with 1,500 – the number of games he coached the team – also hanging in the rafters.

“Thank you Al for believing in all of us,” Tonelli said. “Thank you for making us all feel important, to be proud of our roles, for knocking us down when were too cocky and for picking us up when we were down.”

Tonelli referenced the goal in overtime of Game 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers that gave the Islanders their first championship, when he sent a pass through two defenders to a streaking Nystrom for the win.

“Bob, that magical moment on May 24, 1980, will live with me forever,” he said.

He also spoke glowingly about Butch Goring, who will have his No. 91 retired on Feb. 29 before the Islanders’ game against Boston.

“Prior to his arrival, we were a pretty good hockey team but we were missing something,” Tonelli said. “Butch you were an inspiration to play with and I’m truly looking forward to standing at ice level next Saturday and watching this tremendous honor bestowed upon you.”

Tonelli had a frosty relationship with the Islanders after he was traded to Calgary on March 11, 1986. It began to thaw the last few years after Malkin and Ledecky took over control as majority owners and began actively honoring former players. It’s part of the buildup to the team’s planned move to a new arena at Belmont Park for the 2021-22 season.

“Jon and Scott, thanks for bringing me back home,” Tonelli said. “This barn is the place where I came prepared to play the game with the responsibility to play it hard for my family, my teammates, my coaches, the training staff and most of all my extended family – all of you, the fans.”

Tonelli said he had “trust” in general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz, and thanked the current Islanders – all of whom watched the ceremony wearing No. 27 Tonelli jerseys on the bench – for “the pride you bring to us alumni.”

He also singled out team captain Anders Lee, who currently wears the number that was retired for Tonelli.

“I am so proud and so honored you will continue to wear our No. 27,” Tonelli said. “I also look forward to the day we can share it all the way to the top of the rafters.”

How Al Michaels ended up calling the ‘Miracle on Ice’

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Hockey was not alien to Al Michaels before he became ABC Sports’ hockey announcer for the 1980 Olympic Games. Growing up in Brooklyn, he would attend New York Rovers and later New York Rangers games at Madison Square Garden. He knew the game, that was no question.

But Michaels’ resume of calling hockey prior to Lake Placid consisted of one single game: USSR vs. Czechoslovakia at the 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan. The Soviets would win 5-2 for their third of what would be four straight Olympic gold medals.

When Michaels was preparing to cover the ’80 Olympics, he wasn’t sure what his assignment would be. ABC had an announcing roster highlighted by Keith Jackson, Jim McKay, and Howard Cosell and covering Eric Heiden’s quest for five speed skating golds was a coveted gig.

Michaels’ one game of experience was enough for ABC Sports head Roone Arledge to put him on hockey.

“I was pretty happy about it because among other things, when you’re doing a Winter Olympic sport, you want to be inside,” Michaels said on a conference call with reporters this week. “So I was staying nice and toasty and warm, and of course as it progressed, there was never any opportunity for anybody else to come in and do those games, because again, at that point, by the time the Soviet game had taken place, I had done six games, and none of those guys had done any still. 

“So I was fairly confident we would roll down to the end of the tournament and away we went. But you talk about getting fortunate. As I tell people to this day, there were not a lot of miracles on the biathlon course. I could have been assigned to that. So it all worked out.”

Miracle on Ice celebration Al Michaels
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No time to script the final call

It all worked out and resulted in one of the biggest upsets and most legendary calls in sports history. The Soviets pressed as the U.S. led 4-3, leaving Michaels unable to script a final call.

“To think about what would be said at the end of the game or how it would be said never could enter my mind as the Soviets are putting pressure on,” he recalled. “I’ve got to call it, I’ve got to call it pass by pass, shot by shot.

“And then just serendipitous that with six or seven seconds to go, the puck comes out to center ice, and now the game is going to be over. The Soviets have no time to mount a last rush. The puck is in the neutral zone. And the word that popped into my head was miraculous. That’s just the word that popped in, and it got morphed into a question and quick answer, and away we went.

“But all I’m trying to do at that point is call the game, don’t blow a call. But the Soviets could have tied the game. How insane would that have sounded if I would have said that as the Soviets tie the game with one second to go? 

“It was from my heart. It had nothing to do with what it meant to the country or anything beyond sports, but as somebody who’s loved sports since I was five years old, this was an upset. This was a gigantic, gigantic upset, and so that’s why the word miraculous came into my brain, and I said what I said. But that had everything to do with what an incredible moment this is, and not something that I ever thought would live in posterity, because remember in those years, too, nobody had a home video machine, videotape machine, so this is not something you think lives forever.”

(Even 40 years later, the ties to the home of the “Miracle on Ice” continue for Michaels. His 13-year-old grandson plays travel hockey in Southern California and his team won an October tournament in Lake Placid.)

The better line, according to Eruzione

The American public didn’t hear Michaels’ call live because the game was on tape-delay and aired in primetime. Mike Eruzione, who scored the winning goal, didn’t hear the legendary line until weeks later. After “Miracle” game, the rest of the team watched it on television as he and goaltender Jim Craig did interviews.

While “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” lives on, it’s a different line from the Finland game that’s stuck with Eruzione.

“You know, I never thought it was a miracle, but it was a catchy phrase and it sounded right,” Eruzione said. “I thought Al’s best call, which I thought got lost in this whole thing, was ‘This impossible dream comes true,’ when we beat Finland, because it was an impossible dream, and I’m not talking about the Red Sox. I’m talking about this was a dream that we had as players to go to the Olympic Games and win a medal, let alone have a chance to win the gold medal.

“Everybody gets caught up in ‘Do you believe in miracles? Yes,’ but I thought ‘This impossible dream comes true’ was even greater, and Al and I have played some golf together in some celebrity events, and we’re talking down the fairway and we always hear it, ‘Hey, Mike, hey, Al, do you believe in miracles? Yes.’ I walk through an airport and somebody will say, ‘Hey, Mike Eruzione, do you believe in miracles?’

“So it’s the catch line that everybody talks about, and it was spectacular, and that’s why Al is such a great commentator. He captured the moment and what it was. But I still think the second line after Finland kind of got lost in the shuffle because I thought that was spectacular as well.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.