Sean Couturier had done some things in the playoffs before, things that had helped the Flyers win big games, things that should have helped them win big games. A hat trick against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2012, when he was just 19. A game-winning goal in one game and another hat trick in the next, also against the Penguins, this time in 2018, this time while he was playing on a torn knee ligament. Now he had the puck in the slot, three feet in front of the Islanders’ net Wednesday in Game 2, less than three minutes into overtime, a three-goal Flyers lead now just smoke. This was a big game, and his team’s salvation was on his stick. He shot the puck and missed the net.
“Missed a big chance there just before the goal,” he said later. “Those are the kinds of goals we need to score in the playoffs.”
It wasn’t clear whether he was talking about that missed opportunity or what happened after that missed opportunity: Couturier chased down the puck behind the net and slid a firm and perfect pass to the middle point to Phil Myers. The rest was just exhalation. Flyers 4, Islanders 3, Eastern Conference semifinals 1-1, Couturier emerging from the fog.
He had gone goalless through the Flyers’ first 10 postseason games before scoring late in the first period Wednesday, a marvelous one-man effort in which he pushed the puck past Nick Leddy, shoved Leddy aside, then cut across and tucked the puck behind goaltender Semyon Varlamov. That goal gave the Flyers a 3-0 lead, one that they couldn’t protect, and had Couturier not teed up Myers for that slap shot, had the puck not sailed over Thomas Greiss’ glove into the net, the Flyers could very well have been down two games to none with the beginning of Game 3 coming little more than 24 hours after the end of Game 2. That’s not a mountain face they would have wanted to try free-soloing. An overtime loss Wednesday would have been crushing to their odds and to their spirit.
“We know we’ve got another level to our game, and we need to bring it,” Couturier said. “I thought [Wednesday] was a good step forward.”
The first 20 minutes, sure. The second 40 … eh. The second 40 were much closer to the ragged, inconsistent play that has marred too much of the Flyers’ performance since the round-robin, and Couturier wasn’t and hasn’t been immune himself. If his all-around game had generally been solid over his first 10 games this postseason, it was solid only generally. There were moments that stood out as particularly un-Couturier-like. Early in Game 1, as just one example, he and Jake Voracek drifted toward a loose puck in the Flyers’ defensive zone, neither pursuing it with any gusto or urgency, and it led to an Islanders scoring chance.
Then there were the closing minutes of Game 2, when he and Adam Pelech met at the Flyers’ blue line for a 50-50 play, and Pelech managed to keep the puck in and shove it to Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Pageau rifled a shot over Carter Hart’s left shoulder for the tying goal, and if the Islanders had gone on to win, that play would have been hard for a prospective Selke Trophy winner, purportedly the NHL’s best defensive forward, to live down.
“There’s no doubt in my mind and there shouldn’t be any doubt in anybody’s mind that Sean’s will to play well and to do well is unquestionable,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said. “He’s trying to play his best and put out his best game on the ice. Sometimes it’s a little bit more challenging than others.”
Vigneault didn’t mention it explicitly, but it’s fair to wonder whether Couturier’s immersion in the Toronto bubble is having a greater effect on him than on some of his teammates, a greater effect than he would ever let on. His wife, Laurence, gave birth to the couple’s first child, Ella, on July 23. The Flyers left for Toronto on July 26.
Amid such circumstances, it can’t be easy for a first-time father to focus fully on his job, even the pursuit of a Stanley Cup, let alone those matters outside those dual tunnels. Yet during Couturier’s postgame Zoom call with the media 10 minutes after Myers’ goal, someone asked him about NBA players’ decision to boycott three playoff games Wednesday night – a news story that broke during the Flyers-Islanders game – as if Couturier and his teammates had been scrolling through their Twitter feeds on the bench while their season hung in the balance.
“We’ve each got to take responsibility in respecting each other and treating each other equally,” Couturier said. “I think that will make us advance in society, whatever your skin color or sex origin.”
It was a good moment for him, on an afternoon with a few of them, at last.