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Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Flyers Notebook: Couturier raises his game

Posted by Eric Fisher On March 26

Although he has faced a steady stream of criticism for most of the season, Sean Couturier has been the Flyers’ best center in even-strength situations.

That minority opinion might be damning with faint praise. Couturier certainly hasn’t had a great season. It’s simply that it’s less likely that something bad will happen when Couturier is on the ice than it is when Claude Giroux or Brayden Schenn is on the ice. Couturier isn’t nearly as effective on the power play as Schenn or Giroux, but he’s been the best center at even strength.

Although there is plenty of room for debate regarding which Flyers center has been the best this season, there is little room for debate regarding which center has been the Flyers’ best during March. It’s Couturier.

Giroux put together his first extended points streak of the season during March, but Couturier has clearly been the team’s best center. During the past 11 games (through Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Blue Jackets), Couturier registered three goals and seven assists. His plus/minus rating was plus-10.

On most nights, Couturier’s line has been the team’s best. Whether it was Matt Read and Travis Konecny alongside him or Dale Weise and Brayden Schenn, Couturier’s line has excelled. At times, Couturier has been a dominant center at both ends of the ice.

Couturier’s effectiveness isn’t an aberration. He was doing the same thing late last season, which helped push the Flyers into the playoffs. That is why the season-ending injury he suffered on a hit by Alexander Ovechkin during Game 1 of the first-round series with the Capitals last year was a major blow to the Flyers.

After a quick start this year, including two goals in the season opener, Couturier’s production began to drop off. He was injured in late November and missed a month of action. When he returned in late December, Couturier scored a few goals, but then he endured a 19-game stretch during which he scored just one goal and registered four assists.

During March, however, Couturier has been a force all over the ice. Numbers never tell the whole story with Couturier. He has created goals by producing turnovers that stop the opposition and send the Flyers toward the offensive zone. He has created traffic in front of the goalie. He has checked defensemen off the puck. None of those things result in an assist, but they do result in goals. That’s why his plus/minus rating for March equals his points.

Couturier also has continued to play excellent defense. The Flyers don’t have another center who matches up well against big centers. The Flyers’ penalty killing hasn’t been up to par lately, but, although I don’t have numbers to back this up, it seems that most of the opposition’s power play goals have been scored when Couturier isn’t on the ice.

When the Flyers acquired Valtteri Filppula at the trade deadline, many interpreted that as a sign that the Flyers had given up on Couturier becoming anything more than a third-line center. Filppula scored in his first game as a Flyer, but hasn’t scored during the following 11 games. While Couturier was scoring three goals, registering 10 assists and registering a plus/minus rating of plus-10 during those 11 games, Filppula was assisting on two goals and posting a minus-8 rating.

The constant chatter about trading Couturier is misguided. The Flyers need Sean Couturier. And they need him to be the player he’s been during March for the entire season next year.

*****

SLIM CHANCE: The Flyers’ playoff hopes are nearly gone. Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Blue Jackets left the Flyers eight points behind the Bruins, who occupy the final wild card position in the Eastern Conference, with eight games to play. Even worse, the Flyers must leapfrog the Islanders, Lightning, Panthers and Hurricanes just to get to the Bruins.

The Flyers’ put up a good effort against the Blue Jackets, but former Flyer Sergei Bobrovsky was terrific, making 36 saves. Sometimes you will run into a hot goalie. That’s why it was imperative that the Flyers win games they should win.

Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Jets was abysmal. The Jets had several regular defensemen out of the lineup and were using a backup goalie. But they played with more urgency than the Flyers, who scored late to make the game seem close. When paired with the  6-2 loss to the Devils on March 16, the Jets game marked the Flyers’ second awful effort in three games. That simply can’t happen this time of the year.

The Flyers gave themselves a chance to get back into the playoff race, but five losses in seven games in mid-March left the Flyers with no margin for error.

*****

NOTHING SPECIAL: The penalty killing has slumped during March, but the power play has been worse. Entering Sunday’s game with the Penguins, the Flyers have scored three goals in their last 44 power plays. Considering that Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn are tied for second in the NHL with 15 power play goals, that type of futility is difficult to believe.

*****

SCHENN’S STRUGGLES: I don’t mean to pick on Brayden Schenn for the second straight Flyers Notebook, but it’s not easy to be second in the league in power play goals and not in the top 50 in goals scored.

*****

NOT SO HIP: Claude Giroux, who doesn’t make excuses, finally admitted his hip bothered him at times this season. Giroux, who had offseason surgery, hasn’t appeared to have the same burst and acceleration this season. That has hurt him at the defensive end, as well as at the offensive end.

Giroux has a paltry 14 goals this season. That’s only two more than Couturier, who has played in 16 fewer games. With Giroux on the first power play unit, having 14 goals is simply unacceptable.

The Flyers must hope that the hip is what caused Giroux’s decline this season. With a contract that makes him extremely difficult to trade, the Flyers need their 29-year-old captain to rebound with a better performance next season.

*****

MASON MAKES HIS CASE: Steve Mason’s terrific play during March might alter the Flyers’ offseason plans. Although Mason is inconsistent, his recent performance and his excellence during the Flyers’ 10-game winning streak earlier this season might cause the Flyers to decide to keep him around.

The Flyers might wait to see if Michael Neuvirth is selected in the June 21 expansion draft, and then try to re-sign Mason. With Anthony Stolarz expected to join the Flyers, they would like to keep a veteran goalie around. If the plan is for Stolarz to start, then Neuvirth is probably the better choice to be the backup. Mason, of course, might not want to return if he’s going to be a backup or a one-year placeholder until the younger goalie is ready.

*****

HEAT ON HAKSTOL: Abysmal efforts in losses to the Devils and Jets have made head coach Dave Hakstol a target. How could the team play so badly in important games against mediocre-to-bad teams? The Devils had lost 10 straight games before beating the Flyers. Why didn’t the Flyers play with a sense of urgency in these games?

The criticism, when combined with the Flyers’ poor first periods throughout the season, is legitimate. But that doesn’t mean, as some have suggested, that Hakstol should be fired. It’s his second season as an NHL head coach. He is on a learning curve.

If the same problems persist next season, Hakstol’s seat should be hot. But he deserves the opportunity to learn from his mistakes and make adjustments.

*****

LOOKING AHEAD: In order to qualify for the playoffs, the Fyers have win practically every game – and even that might not be enough. After wrapping up a four-game road trip Sunday with the Penguins, the Flyers return home for games against the Senators (Tuesday), Islanders (Thursday) and Devils (Saturday) before going to Madison Square Garden next Sunday to take on the Rangers. For the optimists, two games against the Devils and a potential four-point game with the Islanders present the Flyers with better-than-average opportunities to gain ground in the wild card race.

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