UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Need proof as to how important rookies have been to the Flyers success this season? Simply look to the stat sheets.
When Sean Couturier scored the game-winning goal in Tuesdays 2-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, four of the five Flyers skaters on the ice were rookies. Only Matt Carle represented the teams veterans during what turned out to be the most critical play of the game.
From Couturier to Matt Read to Harry Zolnierczyk and Marc-Andre Bourdon, the Flyers rookies have been a big part of whats helped team constantly battle for top billing in the Eastern Conference.
Theyve played so well, Danny Briere said. If it wasnt for all the rookies playing as big as a role that they have, theres not a chance that wed be where we are now in the standings.
Its been huge, he added, probably more than anybody expected.
Through the first half of the season, the Flyers rookies have combined for 56 points. Led by Reads 13 goals and 12 assists, eight different rookies have contributed at least a point on the season. These days, on any given night, at least six rookies take the ice wearing orange and all seem to play like theyve been around for three years, instead of just three months.
I feel comfortable, Read said. I still know that Im a rookie, but Im a little bit more comfortable on the ice. As a rookie, you dont want to screw up on the ice or try to make a play thats going to cost you a game or cost you a goal against. So you just do the best you can out there and make sure you do 100 percent out there when you have the chance.
The Flyers rookies have contributed significant minutes on the power play, the penalty kill and other crucial moments since the start of the season. Its not a strange occurrence to see two rookies out together killing a penalty, even. They've been leaned on and trusted by the Flyers coaches in situations often handed over to veteran players with nary a second thought.
Were really happy with what theyve done, coach Peter Laviolette said. Their production has been outstanding. We count on them in key situations power play, penalty kill, playing against other teams top lines, or a big faceoff. We dont shy away from them. We dont pull them off the ice just because its a big situation.
Couturier, newly 19 years old, has been tapped as a penalty killer from the very beginning. He knows theres a trust the coaches have in him, and he like the teams other rookies just try to make the most of the chance hes been given.
We just try to see it as an opportunity for us to show what weve got, Couturier said. Were just doing whatever we can do to help the team, and whenever coach puts us on the ice, we do what we try to help the team.
It hasnt gone unnoticed. Though Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers is the early favorite to win the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year, both Read and Couturier are in the running, as well.
Its kind of flattering, but its a long season, Read said. You put that in the backburners and dont worry about it. You show up every game and you do whats best for the team to help the team win. If youre acknowledged or put in that category, its great. Its the last thing on my mind right now.
If you ask Laviolette, theres no reason to expect the rookies ability to help the team will taper off as the season progresses even through the dog days of winter and early spring.
The season is a long one, after all. Plenty of rookies enter the league straight out of college, where they might play 35 or 40 games just a fraction of the 82 games played in the NHL. Even Couturier, who came to the Flyers from juniors, hasnt played more than 68 games in a season.
Getting over the hump can be a struggle for many players, but Laviolette isnt worried for the young players on his team.
I like where everybody sits and how theyre positioned, he said. Theres not one guy out there that has to play 24 minutes and carry this team. They can come in and they can provide their strengths and they can help the club be successful, while some of the veteran players dig in and do some of the heavy lifting.
And I think thats a good position to be in. I think where you get in trouble sometimes is if the younger players have come in and they have to be the ones that carry the mail.
Thats especially true for Couturier, the newest resident of the Briere household. Having the Flyers assistant captain to look up to, talk to and learn from has been a big part of whats helped the youngest Flyer feel at home on the team.
We try to work hard, Couturier said, of himself and the Flyers other rookies. And every time were out there, do whatever we can do to help the team. Were just one of the other guys on the team.