Couturier puts sophomore slump behind him

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Couturier puts sophomore slump behind him

This is a season of redemption for the Flyers.
 
For the team, the coaching staff and the general manager.
 
And yet, there is no escaping the fact that a number of players see it as a personal redemption for themselves.
 
Among them, 20-year-old center Sean Couturier, who was on the ice Monday night at the Wells Fargo Center during the Flyers' 4-3 shootout exhibition loss to the Capitals. Joel Rechlicz got the winner.
 
Couturier had two assists in the game, playing between Jason Akeson and Jake Voracek. That line scored two goals.
 
In 2011-12, Couturier was among the Calder Trophy nominees for Rookie of the Year with 13 goals, 27 points and a plus-18 rating in 77 games with 14 minutes of ice time a game. He was outstanding on the penalty kill that season.
 
Last year? The lockout-shortened season was a personal disaster.
 
“It was an up-and-down season,” Couturier said. “Not what I wanted. I wish it had been better. It’s behind me now. I’m just looking forward to a better season.”
 
He had just four goals and 15 points in 46 games but more importantly, his solid defensive play had vanished with a minus-8 rating while playing a hair under 16 minutes a night.
 
“A lot of times second-year players don’t have as good a year,” said Craig Berube, who coached the Flyers in Philadelphia while Peter Laviolette handled the split-squad in Toronto.
 
“The one thing I know with Coots is that he is an intelligent hockey player. He knows how to play the game. That is not going to go away. He looks pretty good this year, looks energized.”
 
What has to be better this season?
 
“I think my whole game,” Couturier said. “A little bit of everything. Last year, my defensive game kind of lacked at times. I got to be more constant offensively, as well, and produce more.
 
He put on a little weight -- almost eight pounds -- and you see it as he checked in at 208 pounds in training camp. The organization wanted him to bulk up over the summer. All rookies coming out of junior take a couple of years to “fill out” but it happens.
 
Berube feels Couturier is much better and the added weight has enhanced -- not hurt -- his game. He said his initial burst in the first 10 feet is better, much like the hot start that Claude Giroux has in his skates.
 
“The first 10 feet is where he needed to be quicker,” Berube said. “That’s where people like Jake Voracek get away from guys -- they get off, then they’re gone. That’s where he had to get quicker for me. Once he gets going, he’s fine. You pull away from people and create space for yourself."
 
Couturier is not the only player who gained needed weight. Defenseman Oliver Lauridsen gained a whopping 12 pounds to weigh in at 232. He trained with boxers to be more physical and a better fighter on the ice. Gaining muscle is important to young players.
 
“Last year, I played at about 200,” Couturier said. “As I get older, I want to get bigger and stronger. That’s one part of the game where guys are so strong on the puck. You want to get stronger and out-battle these guys.
 
“The organization wanted me to get bigger and stronger. I went home and tried to get bigger and stronger and I think I did a pretty good job. I feel good [on ice]. I feel stronger and my skating is more powerful, as well.”
 
Laviolette was pleased, too. He feels Couturier need to be physically stronger in his board play for one-on-one battles. Much of the drills in the first part of training camp practices every day focus just on that aspect -- one-on-one battles.
 
“What we do out there [is] designed to be part of what we do through the course of a game,” Laviolette previously said during training camp. “With that comes a lot of board work and battle play in the offensive zone. The first half of the sessions are up and down the ice and skating and skills.
 
“The second half is more geared to competitive nature. Guys getting into battles. Sean is stronger. That comes. When you first see someone at age 18-19 and then see them again at age 23, a whole progression takes place.”
 
That’s what is happening now with Couturier. He wants to turn this muscle into offensive point production, too.
 
“I have always been a two-way player no matter what I do,” he said. “It’s nothing new. I know I can produce offensively, go out and show what I can do.
 
“The last 15-20 games [last year] I felt I played better. I finished strong. This year, I want to build on that and keep pushing and improving.”
 
The big question in camp is who will play left wing on his line with Matt Read. It was a given that that job would have gone to Dan Cleary had he not backed out of a tryout and future contract with the Flyers and signed with Detroit.
 
Now it’s a wide-open competition with Tye McGinn, Michael Raffl and even Marcel Noebels.
 
“Obviously, I’d like to know who I am going to play with,” Couturier said. “It doesn’t really change my mindset. I just want to go out and compete hard. Try to get better.”
 
Would a grinder or a skill player best complement that line?
 
“I don’t know,” Couturier said. “Anybody they put there I will have to adapt to whatever style there is. Whatever they ask me to do. Whatever role I can do to help the team.”
 
Cleary, who is 34, was capable of playing both roles which is why the Flyers liked him. One thing seems certain: The opening will be filled with a younger player.
 
That player could be Scott Laughton, McGinn or Raffl.
 
“We have different guys here who can play different roles,” Couturier said. “We have a good group here. It doesn’t matter.”

Best of NHL: Lightning capture OT win over Red Wings

Best of NHL: Lightning capture OT win over Red Wings

DETROIT -- Nikita Kucherov scored 3:28 into overtime to lift the Tampa Bay Lightning over the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 on Friday night.

Situated on the edge of the crease, Kucherov redirected a hard pass from Brayden Point into the net.

The Lightning are one point behind the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders for the final Eastern Conference wild card.

Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg opened the scoring 8:03 into the second period. Taking a backhand pass from Gustav Nyquist, Zetterberg flipped a knuckling wrist shot toward the goal and over the stick-side shoulder of goalie Andrei Vasilievskiy, who struggled to find the puck through the screen of teammate Point (see full recap).

Islanders notch shootout win over Penguins
PITTSBURGH -- John Tavares and Anthony Beauvillier scored in the shootout to lead the New York Islanders over the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3 on Friday night.

Beauvillier opened the shootout with a goal, and Tavares snapped a wrist shot past Marc-Andre Fleury in the next round. Sidney Crosby scored in the shootout for Pittsburgh, but Jaroslav Halak, making his first start since Dec. 29, stopped Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino.

Anders Lee scored his 28th goal of the season, while Brock Nelson got his 17th and Casey Cizikas his eighth for the Islanders, who moved into the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. New York is tied with Boston at 82 points, but the Islanders have a game in hand on the Bruins. The Islanders have 18 wins in 31 games since Doug Weight was named interim coach on Jan. 17, replacing Jack Capuano.

Halak, a former All-Star, made 37 saves (see full recap).

Cracknell nets first hat trick in Stars' win
DALLAS -- Adam Cracknell got his first hat trick in seven NHL seasons and the Dallas Stars handed the San Jose Sharks their fifth straight loss, 6-1 on Friday night.

Cracknell opened the scoring in the first period, capped a three-goal flurry in the second and beat goalie Aaron Dell on a short-handed breakaway in the third for his career-high 10th goal of the season.

The Sharks entered two points ahead of Anaheim and Edmonton in the Pacific Division despite their longest losing streak of the season. San Jose has been outscored 16-5 during the stretch.

Brett Ritchie, Jamie Benn and John Klingberg also scored for the Stars.

Joe Thornton scored for San Jose on the power play in the second period. Dell had 23 saves.

Dallas' Kari Lehtonen made 20 saves four nights after shutting out San Jose (see full recap).

Flyers-Wild 10 observations: Sean Couturier shows flash, Matt Read answers call & more

Flyers-Wild 10 observations: Sean Couturier shows flash, Matt Read answers call & more

You know Dave Hakstol has reached crisis measures when he takes a skill player in Travis Konecny and throws him onto the fourth line while promoting Matt Read to the top line.

This was risk-taking at its craziest to generate some enthusiasm and life into a Flyers squad that didn't show much of a pulse a few nights earlier in Winnipeg.

Guess what?

It worked during a 3-1 victory on Thursday, the Flyers' fifth straight win over the Wild going back a few years (see Instant Replay).

Their playoff hopes still flicker.

As much as the fan base hated the lineup moves, consider this: general manager Ron Hextall was very explicit this week in saying that the roster Hakstol has right now is what it is. Hextall is not going to promote any young Phantoms into a bad situation when they are headed for what could be a decent playoff run in the AHL.

Therefore, as my former colleague Bill Lyon would say, here are 10 things I think, I think …

1. The Flyers began the game as they have so often this season with yet another turnover and scoring chance against them. Rinse and repeat. The Flyers had three turnovers in less than five minutes to start the game.

2. Minutes later, Steve Mason coughed up a bad rebound off his stick and Zach Parise burned him with a gimme goal for a 1-0 lead. Mason had issues in this one with rebounds that were looking like grenades, but he settled down with a strong final two periods with 24 saves. This was Mason's 100th win as a Flyer (see game story).

3. You had to see it to believe it. Sean Couturier with a nice backhand shot through Devan Dubnyk's five-hole to make it a 1-1 game near the end of the opening period (see feature highlight). I haven't seen that kind of offensive move from Couturier in quite some time. Question is, why can't he do that nightly instead of semiannually? That's the offensive spark you know Couturier is capable of providing.

4. The Wild were very aggressive in this one as they were trying to clinch a playoff spot, so the Flyers had to match that intensity. The Flyers more than matched it. This was far, far better than what Hakstol's team brought to the ice in Winnipeg. Not even close, as the Flyers dominated.

5. Matt Read had a quick stick -- no other way to explain it -- on his goal in the second period off a series of Wild turnovers that came about because of a play set up by Jakub Voracek. That goal seemingly stunned Dubnyk. It was Read's second goal in the last two games. He was all over the ice in this one. Many nights this season, Read was invisible. Not this game.

6. The Flyers had some genuine scoring chances in this game. You had to wonder where this desire to skate, create and score was all through the month of February and into March. The Flyers had strong forecheck pressure and a rebound-attack mentality the entire second period. If that had happened with regularity down the stretch, this team would be sitting in the wild card right now.

7. While the shake-up of the lines obviously benefited Read, it did little for Konecny and actually set him back. He was invisible. No shots. No hits. Invisible with little ice time. Really can't figure this move out but obviously, Hakstol is upset with him for some reason.

8. Minnesota went all in at the NHL trade deadline to get Martin Hanzal and Ryan White, forking over four draft picks, including a first-rounder. The Wild were leading the Central Division before losing six straight (and eight of nine) that allowed Chicago to regain the top spot in the division. The Wild don't look like the same confident, surging team it was a month ago in the Western Conference.

9. Minnesota had a strong push in the final five minutes and the Flyers had some initial difficulty answering that until the final minute when Wayne Simmonds picked up his 300th point as a Flyer on Voracek's empty-net goal to seal the deal. A nice way to finish off a complete effort by everyone involved.

10. The Flyers picked up two points on Boston, which lost to Tampa Bay, and are six behind the Bruins in the wild card. They still remain a l-o-n-g shot to make the playoffs, given the sheer number of teams ahead of them that they need to climb over.