Monday, April 23, 2018

Sean Couturier was the best thing about this NHL playoff series, and this season, for Flyers

April 22, 2018

Sean Couturier #14 of the Philadelphia Flyers celebrates his goal at 40 seconds of the second period against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on April 22, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Flyers had gone through the series-capping handshake line and now were milling about the Wells Fargo Center rink with their sticks raised, an acknowledgement to the applause from the fans who remained, and as the players started filing into the locker room, Sean Couturier was by himself for a while at center ice. He was with his teammates but apart from them, too, just as he had been over these final two games of the Flyers’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Penguins. The winning goal in Game 5, a remarkable three goals and two assists Sunday in a wild 8-5, season-ending loss in Game 6 – all of it with a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee, all of it necessary for the Flyers to make this series competitive again.

Out of that infamous and inadvertent collision with Radko Gudas last week, despite an injury that he said would have kept him out of the lineup for four weeks had he suffered  it during the regular season, Couturier ended up unfurling one of the most remarkable performances in recent Flyers playoff history. Over those two games, he was a bit of Willis Reed in 1970, a bit of Keith Primeau in 2004. On one good leg, he was the Flyers’ best and most productive forward, and it’s time now to recognize and acknowledge how good a player he is and might yet be.

Six years into his NHL career, Couturier had never scored more than 15 goals in a season, had never provided conclusive evidence that he could be more than a third-line center and penalty-killer. There were flashes, and there were hopes, and he had the highest hopes of anyone, daring last April to compare himself to the best two-way centers in the NHL: Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews. All he needed, he insisted, was an opportunity to be that sort of player. He got it this season, and he was.

He scored 31 goals. He was named a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward. He reaffirmed the respect of his teammates and his importance to the Flyers’ future just by playing in Games 5 and 6, let alone by carrying them, and he is still just 25. His growth was the brightest ray of light out of a season that saw the Flyers struggle to make the playoffs, then spend much of this series showing how overmatched they really were against the Penguins.

“He gave us a chance to win that game,” said Claude Giroux, who had just one goal and was a minus-10 in the series. “I know I’ve said before: I have a lot of respect for that guy. He’s one of our leaders. Our season was on the line, and he played a great game.”

“It’s tough to really describe,” Andrew MacDonald said. “To see a guy go out there, banged up like that as much as he was, and putting that kind of effort in, it just provides so much motivation for the guys to say, ‘Hey, he’s going out there doing this for us. We’ve got to pick up our game, too.’ That’s him, though. He’s obviously a tremendous leader for this team moving forward.”

He was a sight to see Sunday, getting to the front of the net to score each of his goals, feathering a lovely saucer pass to Scott Laughton for the Flyers’ fourth goal, making it easy to forget that, just Wednesday, he was so sore that he couldn’t move his right leg, which meant he couldn’t suit up for Game 4. “Even if I had tried to play, I probably wouldn’t have helped the team,” he said. “It’s not worth it. A few days later, I started feeling good enough to give it a try. It’s the playoffs. You’re fighting for your lives, and you just go out and play.”

He tried to be smart, he said, to be in the right position at all times. And he was trying to do that with just more than seven minutes left in the third period as the puck scooted around the boards toward him in the Flyers’ zone.

They looked so similar. Damn if they didn’t look so similar. At practice last Tuesday, he and Gudas had gotten too close to each other, Gudas catching Couturier’s right leg, sending him crashing to the Skate Zone ice, and leaving Couturier so angry and frustrated and certain that he’d been seriously injured that he hurled his stick as if he were striking a whip. Now the Flyers were down 5-4, and Couturier was rooted near the Flyers’ bench, and Kris Letang sent him airborne, Couturier’s legs akimbo until he landed on his back. It appeared an obvious tripping penalty. It wasn’t called. One more time, Couturier was down, and one more time, an awful result was ahead for the Flyers. Jake Guentzel scored just seconds later, and the Penguins led by two, and the Flyers were flatlining.

“I mean, he doesn’t even come hit me or anything,” Couturier said. “He just swipes his stick right in my legs.”

Just then, the hard reality of the series had revealed itself: If the Penguins wanted to target the Flyers’ beating heart, if they were going to take out one player to preserve victory in Game 6, it wasn’t going to be Claude Giroux. It didn’t have to be. It was going to be Sean Couturier. Consider it a sign of things to come.

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