Sean Couturier shows his best late -- but is more to come?

Sean Couturier shows his best late -- but is more to come?

For the final month and change of the regular season, Sean Couturier led the NHL with a plus-18 rating over his final 19 games.

In that stretch from March 4 to April 9, the center amassed five goals, 12 assists and the league's fourth-most even-strength points at 17.

"Sean Couturier was playing the best hockey I've ever seen him play," Jakub Voracek said.

This was all in large part because Couturier finally found some continuity with two wingers to stop the line carousel from spinning. Couturier paired with Brayden Schenn and Dale Weise to form what teammates believed was the Flyers' best line as the season wound down.

Weise, in the first season of a four-year contract, totaled 10 points (six goals, four assists) in his last 14 games to ease the pain from his underwhelming 50 contests prior (see story).

Schenn, coming off a fresh four-year contract of his own, produced 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in his last 15 games to end the season with 55 on 25 markers and 30 assists.

Unfortunately for the Flyers, it all came too late.

As the Stanley Cup Playoffs unfold without them, the Flyers can only hope the line's production carries into 2017-18.

"Me, Schenner and Weiser, we had some tremendous chemistry," Couturier said last week at the Flyers' cleanout day. "We seemed to find each other right from the get-go when we were reunited. We had a good first few games and built on that, and finished the year strong together. It was nice and hopefully, we can build on that and get the same thing going next year."

Couturier's nice finish won't overshadow the fan base's desire for more than just spurts of potential. Many are still eagerly waiting for the 24-year-old to reach greater heights offensively. Couturier was a team-best plus-12 this season with 14 goals and 20 assists in 66 games. However, in six NHL seasons, he has yet to eclipse 40 points.

Maybe some expected too much, too soon after Couturier's back-to-back 96-point seasons at the junior ranks before he joined the Flyers. The Flyers see Couturier as still young with much ahead, while a solid, two-way center is always valuable in the NHL.

What also spurred Couturier late was good health and the addition of center Valtteri Filppula. Couturier missed a month (16 straight games) with a left knee MCL sprain before the New Year and said he returned short of 100 percent.

"I thought I could do enough to help the team win, whether it was defensively, offensively, whatever it was," Couturier said. "Frustrating at times and it took a few weeks to really start not feeling it anymore and getting it out of my head.

"You think you're moving forward and it's getting better and then you get a little setback. It was that type of year.

"I always felt like I was missing that half second to make a play or whatever. … But at the end there, I was starting to feel better and I think it ended pretty well."

Filppula, acquired at the March 1 trade deadline, alleviated weight off Couturier's shoulders by taking on a bulk of the workload at center. Filppula, 33, plays both ends of the ice like Couturier.

"Coots' line there, they really became a productive line," general manager Ron Hextall said last Thursday. "Val's a real solid two-way player, who's going to chip in. When I looked at our lines and our chemistry late in the year, we were a better team. That bodes well for next year and our 5-on-5 play."

Even less than an hour after the Flyers' season finale, head coach Dave Hakstol liked the trio of Couturier, Schenn and Weise looking forward.

"Four or five months is a long ways down the road," he said, "but that's certainly a group that has a good chance to be together starting the year next year."

Couturier's numbers bothered him when he returned from the knee injury in late December. Weise and Schenn had motivational factors, as well, after new deals.

"Obviously I was hungry," Couturier said. "My stats weren't looking too good. This year, that's how I was. We were just three guys that wanted to prove something here at the end and make a push."

For Couturier, that will only continue starting in September.

Jakub Voracek: Flyers' core could be 'blown up' if things don't change

Jakub Voracek: Flyers' core could be 'blown up' if things don't change

Jakub Voracek struggled to find answers.

He wasn't sure why the Flyers saw such a goal-scoring plummet after the first two months of the season. He didn't know exactly what this team needs moving forward.

In fact, Voracek said "I don't know" three times during his end-of-the-season press conference last Tuesday. He looked worn down but pensive after just finishing his 82nd game of the season. The 2016-17 campaign was still fresh but disappointingly done.

But Voracek did know one thing. He knew darn well the history of the Flyers' current core and what's next if the script doesn't soon change.

"We're in our prime years," Voracek said. "We've got to make sure that we step up our game and get this team to the playoffs and start winning some series because if we don't, it's going to get blown up and we all know it."

The Flyers are watching the playoffs for the third time in the last five years, marking their worst five-season stretch since 1989-90 to 1993-94, when they missed the postseason all five times. The Flyers have not won a playoff series since 2011-12.

Voracek is well aware.

"There's no reason not to believe in ourselves," Voracek said. "It's tough to tell you something else. We have what, won one [playoff] series vs. Pittsburgh in six years? Right? If I'm not mistaken. It's not good enough."

General manager Ron Hextall laughed two days later when he heard of Voracek's comments.

"Jake said that?" he asked. "Jake's a hockey player. Jake can play hockey."

Hextall, comfortable with the veterans in place, said this is the team's leadership group -- no one is coming in here to change or add to it.

"We expect that of them," Hextall said. "They're not 20 years old. They're mid-to-late 20s those guys, absolutely, they should be the leaders of our team."

The Flyers' core of Voracek, Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier welcomes that responsibility. All five are under 30 years old and see some of their best years ahead.

That doesn't mean the pressure isn't on -- those five feel it. They know things can change quickly in the NHL, just how the league is turning younger and younger.

"Of course," Giroux said. "When you don't make the playoffs, when you don't meet your expectations, change might happen. But at the end of the day, it's not up to us. For us, it's to keep working, keep doing what we're doing. We like our team, we like our group. We didn't really change from last year."

Voracek sounded like a player growing impatient with the results. Hextall and the front office have practiced plenty of patience. Voracek believes it's time to reward them for it.

"It's a time for us to take that kind of responsibility," Voracek said. "G's 29, he's not a young guy anymore. I'll be 28, Simmer's going to be 29. It's the time for us to take over I think. We've been around for a while." 

Giroux is the oldest of the five aforementioned players, a group that has been intact since the 2011-12 season. The Flyers' captain turns 30 years old in January. He took another step back in 2016-17 -- both health and production wise.

The Flyers see a much stronger Giroux next season. It still all starts with the nine-year Flyer.

"He's going to get some time to get some rest, get some training," Simmonds said. "He'll come back healthy. Just the type of player and the type of competitor he is, he'll be back 100 percent."

The organization's abundance of youth is a reason why the Flyers still see promise in their core.

"Overall, we have some young guys getting their first steps here in the league," Couturier said. "I think it's just growing as a team, more mature as a player. I think everyone needs to step up next year and be better."

The Flyers finished eight points behind last year's team, which snuck into the playoffs on the second-to-last day of the regular season.

Does the fear of change ever sink in?

"It's not my decision," Couturier said. "I can't control that. I like our core. Next year, all these guys are back and we're a pretty good team. It's just little things during the year, a few points that we let slip basically cost us. We've just got to be better and get more wins."

Voracek, always honest and transparent, was harshest on himself. It was an early sign of leadership from the core facing increasing pressure.

"As a player, you've got to take pride in plus-minus, and I'm minus-24 -- it's embarrassing," Voracek said. "It goes on a stretch and you have to take pride in that."

Officially eliminated, Flyers playing for 'mostly just pride'

Officially eliminated, Flyers playing for 'mostly just pride'

NEW YORK -- Their dressing room at Madison Square Garden was somber and so quiet you could hear the overhead ventilators.
 
Some of the players seemed to be in disbelief. Others struggled to find the right words.
 
Not Sean Couturier.
 
"It sucks, obviously," Couturier said. "It's been a few games and we kind of knew we were in a tough spot. Couldn't really control our destiny. To officially be out, it's tough."
 
The Rangers' 4-3 win over the Flyers on Sunday night eliminated Dave Hakstol's club from the playoffs (see story).
 
This is the third time in five years there won't be any hockey at Wells Fargo come late April.
 
No one could have imagined this back in mid-December during the Flyers' 10-game winning streak. Now Hakstol's club becomes an unwelcome asterisk in the NHL record books: the first team to have a 10-game winning streak and not qualify for the playoffs.
 
Some of the Flyers, even Hakstol, feel too much was made of that win streak because so much time was left in the season and anything could -- and actually did -- happen.
 
"If you look at all the teams and all the points, we still would have been fighting for a playoff spot," Couturier insisted. "Every year, you fight to the end. It always comes down to last game or two. To be out before that, it's tough."

Added Hakstol: "I said it at that time [of the streak] that it would be a battle all the way through. Nobody in our room got too far ahead of themselves. You just know things are too tight when you look throughout the conference."
 
Give them this: The Flyers didn't go quietly into the Manhattan night. They overcame a 4-1 deficit late to draw to within a goal. They were controlling play -- and the puck -- when time expired with Valterri Filppula doing a funky, 1970s disco dance shuffle on the ice while trying to find an open shot.
 
"When we made it 4-2, we actually believed we were going to come back," team captain Claude Giroux said. "The attitude of the guys is great. The character? I would play with those guys any day."
 
A number of players, upset over being criticized in the media for playing without a sense of urgency in Winnipeg a few weeks ago, reiterated Giroux's theme.
 
"Never question the character in this room," Brayden Schenn said. "Guys want to win and guys were trying. We're a tight group in here.
 
"It's frustrating because we feel we have good pieces here, some good, young defensemen coming up that have made an impact for us. You don't ever judge the character of this locker room because guys are always going to give all they have."

The Flyers have just three games remaining. They play in New Jersey on Tuesday, then close the season out with back-to-back games this weekend at home against Columbus and Carolina.
 
Couturier said as unrealistic as it was to think the Flyers could actually make up an eight-point gap in the wild card (on March 25), players still played with pride. The Flyers won four of five games from that date when they lost, 1-0, in Columbus.
 
Now what?
 
"Mostly just pride," Couturier said. "Guys are proud to wear the logo in front of us. We kind of deserve that respect where you play hard to the end.
 
"Even though we are out now, you've still got to show up for games. Play for the logo, the fans and the organization."
 
You can be certain general manager Ron Hextall will be watching to see just that from this club.