HUMBLE AND unassuming, Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn does not like to talk about himself.
Ask him about his confidence, the minutes he chews up nightly in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the tough assignments he draws, and Coburn is more likely to deflect praise to his teammates.
Ask Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, though, about Coburn and he will tell you about one of his team's unsung heroes through the first five playoff wins this spring.
"Since I got here, Braydon Coburn has been a rock," Laviolette said. "I think there's a couple of our defensemen that fly under our radar a little bit, just because Chris Pronger was in the lineup and 'Prongs' is an All-Star defenseman.
"[Coburn is] an important part. He plays against other team's top players. He plays a lot of minutes. He's big. He's strong. He skates. He's really been a force."
Entering Monday night's action, Coburn played 193:22 in the Flyers' first seven playoff games, good for ninth among surviving playoff participants with an average of 27:37 per game. All but one of them are defensemen; New Jersey's Ilya Kovalchuk is the one exception.
Few have drawn tougher even-strength assignments than Coburn. Look at the list: New York's Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh were most often on the ice against Ottawa's Jason Spezza in the first round; New Jersey's Marek Zidlicky's top opponent was Florida's Kris Versteeg; and Phoenix's Oliver Ekman-Larsson marked Chicago's Jonathan Toews.
Coburn, 27, skated most often against Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin. On Sunday, in Game 1 against the Devils, he was on the ice more against Kovalchuk than Sean Couturier and the Flyers' checking line.
"It's a great challenge every night," Coburn said. "You've got to be ready. These guys are world-class players. You've got to make sure that you're sharp, there's not really any shifts you can take for granted."
Coburn, one of the Flyers' most physically fit players, logs the minutes effortlessly. New defensive partner Nick Grossmann said he didn't know much about Coburn prior to arriving from Dallas in February, but said Coburn is the team's "horse back there."
"It looks easy for him to do it, but I can tell you that it's not when you play the game," said injured defenseman Andrej Meszaros, who has been watching from afar. "He's been great. He stepped up, when Kimmo [Timonen] wasn't playing or [Grossmann] was hurt. To log that many minutes in the playoffs, that's impressive. He's a great skater. He's in great shape."
To compare Coburn now to the player he was in January or February is a night-and-day difference. His confidence is sky-high. His turnovers are down. His puck movement is efficient. And he's been able to deftly lead the rush out of the Flyers' zone with authority. Coburn's play makes general manager Paul Holmgren thankful the two sides agreed to a 4-year, $18 million extension in October; that price would be rising daily if he was a soon-to-be free agent on July 1.
"I think you always want to try and build and make sure you are better as the season goes on," Coburn said. "You want to make sure you're playing your best hockey right now."
Coburn starts shifts - for example, with a faceoff - in his defensive zone 48.2 percent of the time. By the time Coburn exits the ice, the puck is in the offensive zone 49.6 percent of the time. Coburn and Grossmann are the Flyers' only two defensemen in the playoffs to have the play finish in the offensive zone more times than not.
Andreas Lilja, Erik Gustafsson and even Timonen start more often in the offensive zone and end in the defensive zone.
On Sunday, for instance, it was Coburn who hit James van Riemsdyk with a long outlet pass for an odd-man break late in the game.
"He's incredible with his fitness and quickness. You saw on Sunday, he had a couple of rushes," Meszaros explained. "He's trying to join the offense, but obviously his main focus is defense. And he's doing a good job with both."
Coburn deflected praise to his longtime partner, Timonen, saying he's been blessed with knowledgeable partners who have slowed the game down for him. He just doesn't realize that he is the one now doing it for players like Grossmann.
"He's a hard defenseman to play against," Jake Voracek said. "He's playing that shutdown role. He's been very solid. Without him, I don't know where we'd be."
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