Flyers’ once-deadly power play wilted against Penguins

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No doubt about it, Flyers fans have a beef about the goal that really set the stage for the Penguins to put Game 6 – and the series – out of reach on Sunday.

Perhaps Sean Couturier would have received an embellishment infraction during the exchange, but either way, it sure seemed like Kris Letang took another penalty on Couturier just moments after leaving the penalty box for a different infraction. No call was made, and just moments later, Jake Guentzel scored to push the score to 6-4.

Things got weird after that as the Penguins eliminated the Flyers via an 8-5 score in Game 6, but plenty of Philly fans probably wonder “What if?” on that goal. Flyers players seem to agree that Letang deserved a penalty.

You can debate that call and different breaking points until you’re blue in the face, but the real “What if?” question might revolve around special teams. To be specific, the Flyers’ power play really let them down in that just-expired series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Flyers were held without a power-play goal in five of the six games during this series. The lone exception was Game 2, when the Flyers went 2-for-3 in a 5-1 win.

Philly went 2-for-21 overall during the series, generating a pitiful power-play percentage of 9.5. Only the Kings and Golden Knights were less productive with the man advantage, and that was during a skin-tight four-game sweep where goals were incredibly hard to come by (that series featured 10 goals total, three fewer than the Flyers and Penguins scored in Game 6 alone).

It’s especially remarkable that the Flyers also went 0-for-13 on the power play at home during this series. With their season on the line, that unit only managed two power-play shots on goal in three opportunities in Game 6, looking especially indecisive despite also receiving a 4-on-3 opportunity.

Now, heading into this series, the Penguins were expected to hold an advantage on special teams because of what could be a historically potent PP unit of their own. Still, it’s troubling that the Flyers rarely exploited what was a far from spectacular Penguins penalty kill. Pittsburgh’s PK unit was in the bottom third of the NHL percentage-wise since February, setting the stage for two strong power plays to trade blows. That didn’t happen as much as expected, with the Flyers’ failures ending up being fatal.

A question of personnel?

If you want to point to one factor, ponder Wayne Simmonds‘ lack of involvement.

The fantastic front-of-the-net presence implied that he might be undergoing surgery soon, which probably explains both his limited usage and limited production. Simmonds failed to score a single goal during this series, finishing with two assists in six games.

(Strangely, that matches his production from his last playoff appearance in 2015-16: zero goals, two assists in six games.)

Blame it on struggles or a lack of health, but either way, the Flyers were turning to different players when a man up.

It’s no surprise to see big PP TOI numbers for Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, and Shayne Gostisbehere. The notable swap is Nolan Patrick, who joins those Flyers in the four minutes per game range, while Simmonds was only logging about two minutes per night.

Patrick has come a long way as his rookie season goes along, yet Simmonds is one of the NHL’s true wizards in the dirty areas right in front of the net. Simmonds has generated at least 11 power-play goals for five straight seasons with the Flyers for a reason.

Would things have been different if Simmonds was truly healthy? It’s a fair question, but you also wonder if the Flyers didn’t make enough adjustments to get their once-potent power play back on track.

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In looking back at this series, the Flyers will certainly want to solidify their goalie situation, a seemingly eternal conundrum for this franchise.

Sometimes it comes down to getting the right players and goalies in place, something that GM Ron Hextall must wrestle with during the summer. Still, there are also questions about putting the right players in the right situations, and in many cases that comes down to coaching.

Ultimately, a lukewarm power play hurt the Flyers’ chances of trading haymakers with the prolific Penguins. Maybe it’s a mere matter of small sample sizes, yet Philly’s failings in that area should at least prompt some soul-searching over the summer.

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.

Penguins won’t have Hornqvist; Flyers lineup murky for Game 5

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If the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to eliminate the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 tonight, they’ll do so without Patric Hornqvist.

The Swedish winger already missed Game 4 with an upper-body injury, and the team ruled him out for Game 5. Hornqvist had been playing quite well lately, including generating a point-per-game (three in as many contests) during this series. He’s also been a pain in the neck, riling up his opponents while amassing 16 penalty minutes in Game 2.

It’s worth noting that Hornqvist scored the Penguins’ last series-clinching goal. He found the net late in Game 6 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, stunning the Nashville Predators as Pittsburgh repeated as champs.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Kessel gets boost with Hornqvist sidelined

The Penguins won Game 4 against the Flyers by a score of 5-0 after rearranging lines.

Hornqvist was lining up with Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, while Phil Kessel climbed to that second-line spot in Game 4 after pairing with Derick Brassard. Brassard’s wingers changed to Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust, while Sidney Crosby anchors a line of Dominik Simon and Jake Guentzel.

Those configurations worked well, but a desperate Flyers team could provide a different look.

That’s especially true if Sean Couturier can return to the mix for Philly after missing Game 4 himself. The team considers the Selke finalist a game-time decision, while he was seen wearing a knee brace during this morning’s optional skate.

Shuffling with Couturier hurt

The Flyers fiddled around with some interesting combinations with Couturier in doubt. Nolan Patrick centered Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux during much of Wednesday’s loss, while Left Wing Lock indicates that Valtteri Filppula could replace Patrick between Voracek and Giroux if Couturier is out.

Couturier playing or sitting is pivotal, as he’s been carrying a huge workload for Philly. That was especially true in Games 2 (27:15 minutes of ice time) and Game 3 (26:18), when Couturier logged big minutes. He also benefited the Flyers from a balance standpoint, as they were able to place Giroux and Voracek on different lines at even-strength with Couturier available.

That’s not the only big question mark for the Flyers (and perhaps for the Penguins’ hopes of prepping for the Flyers). Head coach Dave Hakstol didn’t name the starting goalie for Game 5, generating speculation that Michal Neuvirth may step in for Brian Elliott.

For all we know, the Flyers are aware of their starting goalie situation, along with Couturier’s status, but we might need to wait to actually find out. Then again, when you consider Patrice Bergeron‘s late scratch for the Bruins in Game 4 of their series, it could indeed be a coin flip for Couturier, too.

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Game 5 airs on NBCSN tonight, with puck drop set for 7 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

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.

Flyers ready for ‘next man up’ mentality with Couturier out for Game 4

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PHILADELPHIA — Before the Philadelphia Flyers fully trickled out to the Wells Fargo Center ice for their optional morning skate ahead of Game 4 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream), the word from the team was that there was no update on Sean Couturier, who was injured following a collision with Radko Gudas during Tuesday’s practice.

When pressed, all head coach Dave Hakstol would say is that it’s a game-time decision. If Couturier is out, that could mean rookie Nolan Patrick centering the top line or Claude Giroux moving from the wing to back down the middle.

“We’ll be ready and prepared, regardless of what the lineup is,” Hakstol said. “You can’t center it around one or two players.”

“Anytime somebody gets injured or traded, it’s a great opportunity for guys to step up,” said Giroux. The Flyers captain would reference their run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final that saw players like Ville Leino and Giroux himself step up when Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne were forced from the lineup. It’s understood that it’s next man up in these situations.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Patrick would see his responsibilities upped should Couturier sit, as there’s the possibility of him being matched up with Sidney Crosby.

“If the lines are different I wouldn’t change how I play against [Crosby],” Patrick said.

There’s no replacing what Couturier brings to the Flyers lineup. Patrick called him “one of the best two-way players” he’s ever seen, and if the option for Hakstol to play him in all situations is taken away for Game 4, that would leave a big hole in a vital game for Philadelphia.

The penalty kill would take a hit in his absence, a unit that was overwhelmed in Game 3 and allowed three goals on seven Penguins power play opportunities. Six of those penalties were stick infractions, and while relying on special teams isn’t something that necessarily built into Mike Sullivan’s game plan, the Flyers did make sure to talk about being smarter. Going back to Pittsburgh down 3-1 is something they want to avoid.

“I think everyone knows those mistakes before our coach even tells us,” Patrick said. “Can’t happen and we’ll be better in that area.”

More: Flyers hoping new lines can get offense going vs. Penguins

UPDATE:

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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.

Top picks from 2016, 2017 unfazed by playoff pressure

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Auston Matthews got a taste of playoff hockey last season. Patrik Laine has been waiting two years for this.

The third pick in the 2016 draft? Well, Pierre-Luc Dubois is taking a surprising star turn in the spotlight of the NHL playoffs, too.

Matthews, Laine, Dubois and 2017 top picks Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick all look unfazed as they handle significant responsibilities in the postseason. All are in top-six forward roles and have combined for five goals and six assists.

”These guys are young guys,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said after Matthews’ Game 3 winner against Boston was the 20-year-old center’s first point of the series. ”They’re playing against real players and they’re young guys. You’ve got to go through some of these slappings in your life to kind of respond and learn how to respond and do things right.”

These five budding superstars have been doing a lot of things right all season. Matthews’ 34 goals led the Maple Leafs; Laine’s 43 for Winnipeg were second in the NHL; Hischier’s 48 points were second on the Devils; and Patrick’s 30 and gradual improvement earned him a promotion to the Flyers’ second-line center spot.

Dubois was a bit of a surprise pick by Columbus behind Matthews and Laine at the 2016 draft, and he didn’t break into the NHL right away. Dubois wasn’t expected to mature this quickly and doesn’t get the kind of attention as last season’s top finishers for rookie of the year, but he’s used to that by now.

”I’ve always been the guy kind of under the radar,” said Dubois, whose 48 points were third on the Blue Jackets. ”All my life it’s been pretty much like that. I don’t really look to impress other people. I just want to play well. I’ve never been the guy that everybody talked about, so it never really fazed me.”

Dubois most impressively has earned the trust of old-school coach John Tortorella enough to be the Blue Jackets’ No. 1 center at age 19. Tortorella uses Dubois as an example to show older players how to handle situations, an ultimate sign of respect from a Stanley Cup-winning coach who doesn’t hesitate to put him on the ice against opposing stars.

”He accepted it, he excelled,” Tortorella said. ”He has a mental toughness for a 19-year-old kid, to accept that type of responsibility and want more. It’s a different guy. You’ve got to be careful with young kids, but he has showed me tremendous progress and instant mental toughness as I’ve gotten to know him as the season’s gone on.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Laine isn’t tracking the stats of the other players in his draft class, but he knows how they are doing. Similarly, Dubois enjoys watching Matthews and Laine while trying not to compare himself to them.

”They’re obviously really great players,” said Dubois, who picked up two assists in his first playoff game. ”I know my game and people that know my game know that we’re all different players. There’s the offensive side of it, there’s the defensive side, there’s everything. Everything’s different about our games.”

Production ties them together with Hischier and Patrick, who also don’t look out of place at all in their first playoffs at 19.

New Jersey coach John Hynes said Hischier has been one of the Devils’ best players, which is the continuation of a season of learning for the first Swiss No. 1 pick.

”I’ve seen every city, every rink and just for me it was a lot of experience this year, and guys helped me a lot,” said Hischier, who scored in Game 2 against Tampa Bay and played over 17 minutes in the Devils’ Game 3 win. ”Just all around I think I grew as a person and as a hockey player.”

Patrick wasn’t putting up a lot of points in the first half of the season but still felt he was playing well. Philadelphia coach Dave Hakstol felt good enough about Patrick’s game that he promoted him and has reaped the benefits for the past couple of months and in the first round against Pittsburgh.

”Obviously I’m more confident in my game,” Patrick said. ”It’s nice for the confidence. I think my worked my way up and earned that spot. I think it’s easier to get into games and get in the flow of it more playing a little more.”

Ice time isn’t a problem for Matthews and Laine, who are key drivers of play for the Leafs and Jets. Toronto finally got going against the Bruins in large part because of Matthews, who said he felt an earthquake in his feet when he scored in Game 3 and let out a scream to match.

After Laine scored the tying goal in Game 1 against Minnesota in what became the Jets franchise’s first playoff victory, he motioned to fans for cheers before jumping into the glass. The Finnish winger is used to scoring goals – and a lot of them – but in the playoffs it’s even more special.

”It was maybe a little bit nicer,” Laine said. ”I was saving my goals and celebrations for the playoffs. Now I can celly (celebrate) a little bit harder.”

AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Flyers hoping new lines can get offense going vs. Penguins

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Of the Philadelphia Flyers’ six goals in their three games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, three have come from defensemen and one has come from a rookie forward. Zero have come from three of their top-five goal scorers from the regular season — Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds.

In an effort to inject some life into his offense, head coach Dave Hakstol mixed up his lines during Tuesday’s practice, one day before Game 4 (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN) with the Flyers trailing their first-round series 2-1.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Boosting his top line, Hakstol reunited Giroux, Voracek and Sean Couturier for the first time since December, and Wayne Simmonds and Travis Konecny were moved to a line with Nolan Patrick centering. The hope is that some magic can be rekindled.

“At the time we went away from it that [Giroux] line had been outstanding. We weren’t playing well as a team at the time, so we wanted to try and build a little bit more depth into our forward group,” Hakstol said on Wednesday. “We feel a little bit differently about our group of forwards now, so we wanted to get a look at that group back together again and how the trickle down affects the other lines as well.”

One issue that could drastically alter that new look is the condition of Sean Couturier, who limped to the dressing room following a collision with Radko Gudas.

The Flyers had no update on the 25-year-old forward, and one likely won’t come until after Wednesday’s morning skate. Should a change be needed, Haksol could move Patrick to the top line or put Giroux at center, but the head coach said that thought hadn’t crossed his mind yet.

Losing Couturier would be a huge blow for a Flyers team looking to even the series. He played 27:15 in Game 2 and 26:18 in Game 3, with a lot of that on special teams (12:12 PP, 11:03 SH). He’s an invaluable player and one of their main sources of offense so far with a goal and three points.

The Penguins will be without Patric Hornqvist, who was ruled out of Game 4 with an upper-body injury. His absence, however, won’t hurt them as much as the Flyers being without Couturier.

More: Penguins bounce back, take 2-1 series lead over Flyers

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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.