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.

NY governor says pro teams can resume training

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says teams in his state can return to their facilities for training after a pause of more than two months.

”Starting today, all the New York professional sports leagues will be able to begin training camps,” the Democratic governor said during a news conference Sunday.

The New York City area was one of the hardest-hit parts of the U.S. by the coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 deaths and new infections in the state have been trending downward.

Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are discussing the resumption of their seasons with their players’ unions.

”I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena – do it! Do it!” Cuomo said. ”Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

WCHA’s Alabama-Huntsville cuts hockey program

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Alabama-Huntsville is dropping men’s hockey and men’s and women’s tennis as part of budget cuts in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

School officials said athletes in those sports who want to join another team’s roster will be released without penalty and free to transfer immediately. If they choose to stay, their current scholarships will be honored for the duration of their academic careers.

Alabama-Huntsville was one of the only southern schools to have a men’s hockey varsity program. The Chargers won Division II national titles in 1996 and 1998 and were Division II runners-up in 1994 and 1997 before making the move to the Division I level for the 1998-99 season.

Men’s hockey had been the lone Division I sport for Alabama-Huntsville. It competes at the Division II level in all other sports.

Canada’s NHL teams offer options to season-ticket holders

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Canada’s NHL teams have offered season-ticket holders rebate or refund options in acknowledgment that no more 2019-20 regular-season games will be played in front of fans in their respective buildings.

In a four-day span May 13-16, all seven teams contacted their season-ticket bases with options and, in some cases, deadlines to make a decision, according to The Canadian Press.

“It has become increasingly apparent, that any possibility will not include any further games being played this season in front of fans at Bell MTS Place,” the Winnipeg Jets said in an email.

That admission may seem anticlimactic given leagues and teams around the world are either playing in empty stadiums, or trying to figure out a way to just resume play during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But season-ticket money is a key element of NHL business. Clubs are loathe to part with it.

Canadian teams are offering refunds, but also are pushing a number of incentives to let them keep the money.

Toronto Maple Leafs season-ticket holders had to declare they wanted their money back by Victoria Day or a credit would be applied to their accounts.

Their Montreal Canadiens counterparts had to make a decision by Friday, while the Vancouver Canucks’ deadline is June 3.

NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format

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We have our first step towards resuming the 2019-20 season with the approval of the return-to-play format by the NHLPA Executive Board.

The 31 NHL team representatives voted and a majority gave the thumbs up to the 24-team, conference-based proposal.

According to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, the vote was 29-2 in favor.

Now the plan moves on to the Board of Governors for their approval.

From the NHLPA:

The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup. Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.

If the BOG green lights it, the next steps would include figuring out proper safety protocols for all involved and how the hub city plan would work, among numerous other details.

Based on points percentage at the time of the March 12 NHL pause, the top four teams in each conference (Boston, Tampa, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas) will receive a first-round bye. Round 1 will feature eight play-in matchups in a best-of-five series.

As the play-in round takes place, the eight conference leaders could potentially take part in a mini tournament that will determine the seeding for Round 2. Reseeding after the play-in round is another topic likely to be discussed.

Here’s what it might end up looking like:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Bruins
• Lightning
• Capitals
• Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Blues
• Avalanche
• Golden Knights
• Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

Games would be played without fans with teams based in hub cities potentially located in both the U.S. and Canada. Columbus, Las Vegas, and Edmonton are a few of the cities that have shown interested in playing host to playoff games.

Since the 24-team format entered the rumor mill, it’s received a mixed reaction from players.

“Twenty-four teams sounds like a lot of teams to me,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson told Mike Tirico on Thursday. “You have to make sure there is some level playing field in terms of intensity…So while 24 teams sounds like a lot, maybe due to logistics, that makes the most sense.”

“I will say that when it comes to the format I think it is almost impossible to make everyone happy … the situation is what it is,” Lars Eller of the Capitals said via the Washington Post. “It is far from perfect. We are going to manage the best we can and I do think we will come together and find a solution regarding that. It is not going to be easy.”

Kris Letang told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that Penguins players voted “yes” on the proposal citing “greater good for everyone.”

“At the end of the day, nobody gets exactly what they want,” Letang said. “But, we all want what is best for hockey and to continue to grow the game.”

MORE:
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’
Our Line Starts podcast: Evaluating fairness of 24-team NHL playoff

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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.