PHILADELPHIA — There’s coaching, and then there’s over-coaching.
Fortunately for the Flyers, 3-2 winners on Saturday over Seattle at Wells Fargo Center, John Tortorella seems to know lately when to do the former and avoid the latter.
Take the case of Sean Couturier. The Flyers forward was scuffling on Saturday through two periods, and took responsibility for each of the Kraken’s two goals. Couturier figured he got a little too aggressive in the defensive zone in leaving Tomas Tatar open in the slot in the second period, and then on Jared McCann’s goal that tied it at 2-2 in the third period, he took a poor route to the puck before seeing the shot deflect off of his stick and flutter over the shoulder of goalie Cal Petersen.
Was anything said on the bench after that second one?
“Not really, other than hearing Torts in my ear,” Couturier said.
He responded. Less than five minutes after McCann’s goal, the Flyers won an offensive zone draw and Couturier deflected Travis Sanheim’s shot past Joey Daccord. It was the game-winner in what was the Flyers’ third straight victory coming out of the All-Star break.
— Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) February 11, 2024
Tortorella explained after the game that he was only giving Couturier the business because of how important he is. That’s not headline news, as Couturier has somehow nearly regained his form as a former Selke Trophy winner despite missing almost all of the previous two seasons.
But Couturier’s being one of the Flyers’ leaders apparently doesn’t make him immune from a dressing down when the coach feels it’s warranted.
“I respect Coots, but I needed more out of him. I was waiting most of the night for that to get going,” Tortorella said. “He probably doesn’t need to hear it but he probably will again if it happens that way.
“He’s a pro. He knows when things are going well, when he needs to do more. But it was frustrating for me because we needed him, and he scored a goal next shift. … He’s a huge part of this team if we’re going to win and he’s not allowed to have a bad night or take a night off. We’re not good enough for him to be average.”
Couturier let his emotions show after the goal, his first in 12 games.
“That was an F-you to me,” Tortorella said. “I’m sure it was. So be it. That’s part of it. That’s what I like about him.”
Saturday’s win, in which the Flyers outshot Seattle 38-19 while controlling play for most of the first and third periods, in particular, was also a strong response game from Thursday’s 4-1 over the Jets in which the Flyers got an early lead but were then thoroughly outclassed over the final two periods. Tortorella was displeased after watching the Flyers get outshot 25-7 over the final 40 minutes. They were fortunate the Jets couldn’t finish on anything or it might have been a different result.
But instead of storming into the dressing room immediately after that game or yelling and screaming at practice the next day, he moved on. It was a vote of confidence for the cohesiveness of the dressing room, which is something that both he and upper management have praised since the season began.
“I think they understand, they hold each other accountable,” Tortorella said. “I knew how they felt after last game. I walked into that room and it wasn’t a room that just won a 4-1 game. It’s very important for the coaching staff to let them alone and let them figure it out. If they’re going to grow, we can’t be in there holding hands all the time. … I thought they answered the proper way.”
Said Laughton: “I think we did realize that it wasn’t good enough.”
Laughton, especially, set the tone on Saturday. He got loose for a breakaway about three minutes into the game, and although he didn’t convert, it led to a Flyers power play after Vince Dunn cross-checked Garnet Hathaway at the side of the net.
On the power play, Laughton got his goal, hammering in a one-timer from Cam York at 4:36. The Flyers improved to 21-4-2 this season when scoring first.
Just like Couturier was a bit later, Laughton, the subject of trade rumors lately, let loose with an emphatic celebration.
“Obviously when you don’t score a whole ton get put on the power play tonight and get one — pretty fired up,” he said.
Another coaching decision paid off on Saturday, too. The Flyers knew they would have to get Petersen in a game at some point, as Sam Ersson will need some breaks from time to time as the new de facto No. 1 goalie. Starting Petersen for the first time since Nov. 11 made sense in that the Kraken were playing their first game since Jan. 30 coming out of the All-Star break, and after a flight across the country, were probably going to be a bit rusty to start the game.
They were, and the Flyers took advantage in jumping out to a 2-1 lead on goals by Laughton and Ryan Poehling short-handed. But Petersen was needed in the second period, and made a number of skillful stops, including a glove save on Alex Wennberg’s attempt on a Kraken power play midway through the frame.
Petersen, who has struggled with the Phantoms this season, has a chance to reestablish himself as an NHL goalie now that there is an open roster spot at that position. It seems likely that his next start will be against the miserable Blackhawks in Chicago on Feb. 21, leaving upcoming games against the Coyotes on Tuesday at home, at Toronto on Thursday, and at New Jersey for the Stadium Series next Saturday for Ersson.
“I obviously understand the opportunity,” said Petersen, who finished with 17 saves. “It’s one that I’ve waited for for a long time, so I’m still going to keep that day-to-day mentality, but it’s an opportunity I don’t want to let go to waste.”
The Flyers are opening up a cushion between themselves and the rest of the Metropolitan Division, too, as the Penguins and Islanders both lost in regulation on Saturday, while the Devils dropped an overtime decision to Carolina. They’re six points ahead of New York, eight in front of New Jersey, and nine ahead of the Penguins.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good spot here and I think guys have realized the way we need to play to continue this,” Laughton said. “It’s going to be a sprint to the finish line here.”
It surely won’t always be a smooth ride until the second week of April, like it wasn’t for Couturier on Saturday. But this late in the season, they all seem to know what to expect from one another, and what buttons need to be pressed.
“I think all year we’ve been under control, and kind of stick with it no matter what,” Couturier said. “That’s what we need to do as a team, and grow.”
(Photo: Eric Hartline / USA Today)