They knew the cavalry was coming.
When Saturday’s practice ended Sean Couturier went to center ice and led the team stretch. A throaty chant rose from the circle of teammates:
“Coots! Coots! Coots!”
The Flyers had blown late leads in consecutive losses to the Bruins. Leads that begged for a steady hand, a big body, a long reach, and an uncanny instinct for being in the right places at the right times. Leads that a Selke Award winner might have helped preserve. Leads the Flyers are paying Couturier $4.75 million to safeguard. But Couturier had missed the last 10 games with a rib injury he suffered 45 seconds into 11th previous game.
Hockey, basketball, and baseball aren’t exact parallels, but the Flyers missing Couturier for essentially 11 games is like the Sixers missing Joel Embiid, or like the Phillies missing Bryce Harper for 32 games of a 162-game season. Their returns would be trumpeted, too.
Coots returned. The Flyers held on to their lead Sunday at Washington, and then some, and it centered on their best centerman.
Couturier scored the game-winning goal early in the third period, added an empty-net goal late, assisted on another goal, and finished plus-4 for the first time since Nov. 10, 2018, more than two years ago. The 7-4 win was his first multiple-goal game in 365 days, which also was a seven-goal win in D.C., this one 7-2; he had two goals and an assist in that game, too.
Moreover, Couturier helped the Flyers shut out Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals the over the final 20 minutes. The Caps are the No. 3 team in the East Division, which the Flyers, with 18 points, now co-lead with Boston, to whom they have lost all four matchups this season. They got here despite missing Couturier, their best player, for essentially 11 of their first 12 games of the 56-game season.
“Coots” looked like he’d been in the equipment room getting his edges ground, not healing torn rib cartilage. There was no rust. He played sharp as a skate.
He began the Super Bowl Sunday, noontime start on the fourth line with Michael Raffl and Nic Aube-Kubel. He promptly snatched the puck from Conor Sheary and set up Phil Myers for the Flyers’ second shot of the game. He won a faceoff on his second shift, his first of five faceoff wins.
Couturier passed his most important tests out of sight of the puck. He crunched Trevor van Riemsdyk midway through the first period, and he absorbed four early hits himself. His ribs didn’t hurt.
Flyers coach Alain Vigneault limited his ice time — he played 15:58, about 4 minutes less than he’s averaged in the past seven seasons — but Couturier returned fit and eager. After all, torn cartilage doesn’t keep you from skating or shooting.
“I felt great all game,” he said. “I’m just happy to be back.”
If he as happy, his team is ecstatic.
“‘Cootsy’ is a difference-maker. ... There’s a reason why he’s considered one of the best two-way centermen in the league,” Vigneault said. “It’s because he does all of those [little] things right. He’s on the right side of his check. Makes the right percentage plays with the puck. Having him back in our lineup is great for our group. He’s a solid leader, and we need him to play.”
He needed more from Couturier as the game progressed, so, Vigneault said, he ignored any minutes recommendations and rearranged lines to start the third period. Couturier now centered Raffl and Jake Voracek.
Couturier won the opening faceoff of the third period, made sure the puck stayed in the Capitals’ zone, then scored 31 seconds in, stuffing a rebound between the legs of Craig Anderson. That sequence might have been the most obvious and most important of Couturier’s contributions, but it was not the only important one.
On his next shift in the third period he won a puck battle in the right corner, beat defenseman Zdeno Chara to the net, then drew a four-minute double minor when Chara split open his chin with a high stick. The Flyers didn’t score, but the power play whittled 4 minutes from the Caps’ comeback bid.
He won a faceoff win in his own zone midway through the third. A few minutes later, he redirected a pass to a teammate on the boards, which averted a turnover and helped the Flyers clear.
Near the middle of the second period, Couturier began the rush that tied it at 3.
He got caught on a shift with James van Riemsdyk late in the second period, and JVR immediately scored to make it 4-3. It was an unassisted goal, but when you’re always in the right place, always at the right time, magic happens. Couturier’s mere presence can be magical.
“Whenever he’s on the ice, you’re basically not worried about bad things happening. He’s so aware, positionally,” said James van Riemsdyk (Trevor’s brother), who had a goal and an assist Sunday. “He’s usually playing against the other team’s top player” in five-on-five situations.
Ovechkin can attest to that. He had zero points in five games against the Flyers last season. He had four points in two periods Sunday.
Of course, on Sunday, Couturier did not share much ice time with Ovechkin.
Expect that to change when the teams reconvene Tuesday night in D.C.