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Couturier's confidence restored

Berube has him focused on shutdown role.

Flyers forward Sean Couturier. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Flyers forward Sean Couturier. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

ASK CRAIG BERUBE what has been the one difference in his Flyers over the past 2 weeks and his answer is direct.

"Confidence. Team confidence," Berube said in Winnipeg on Friday night. "They believe that they can win games if they play with it."

You could point to a whole number of reasons why the Flyers are 4-1-2 in their last seven games, as compared to 2-7-0 in their nine games before that. Steve Mason and Ray Emery have been excellent. The Flyers have seen an uptick in scoring, thanks to production from their top two lines. And their defense has been significantly better, finally getting help from forwards in a more disciplined system.

I can't help but notice that Berube is putting each player in a position where he can be confident.

There is no better example of that than Sean Couturier. He is finally playing again with the confidence and quiet demeanor that should have made him a Calder Trophy finalist as Rookie of the Year in 2011-12.

He still doesn't have a goal this season. But now, the pressure is off.

Since his rookie season, when he finished with 13 goals and 14 assists for 27 points, we have heard ad nauseum about how the Flyers would like more offensive production out of him - all while asking him to maintain some of the toughest defensive assignments in the NHL.

On Wednesday night, for instance, you look at the ice time and notice the only shift Sidney Crosby took without Couturier on the ice was when Couturier was in the penalty box in the third period.

"He's been huge," Berube said. "He's going against a lot of good players every night. He does a real good job defensively. I think everybody's more aware in our own zone, checking and being responsible."

Sometimes, when you're still finding your way in a man's league as a 20-year-old, it's hard enough to excel consistently in one aspect - let alone two.

So, rather than push him for more points, Berube pulled Couturier aside and told him to focus on playing his shutdown role.

It's not that Berube doesn't want Couturier to score. Hardly. Depth offense is often the difference between winning and losing in the NHL. It's just that he believes it will happen naturally, with the right defensive posture and talented linemates, without any added mental strain.

"In the role I'm in, I think I've got to take defense first," Couturier said. "We've had some chances, we just haven't scored. It's not like it was just me, everyone lately had a hard time scoring. My stats are going to come up.

"Meanwhile, I've just got to play my game and be the player I am."

Whatever was happening during last year's lockout-shortened season clearly wasn't working. Couturier tallied four goals and 11 assists in 46 games, a slight dropoff in points, but his defensive zone play didn't appear to be at the same level. Plus-minus is an antiquated stat, but it presents a simple enough point:, he dropped from plus-18 over 77 games to minus-8.

Waiting out the work stoppage in Adirondack, the coaching staff had Couturier quarterbacking the point on the power play. They wanted to squeeze more out of the back-to-back, 96-point scorer in junior hockey. When he got back to the NHL level, he seemed to be stuck in the middle.

Under Berube, Couturier is back to being an elite defensive player - by just about every measurable "fancy" statistic. He starts the vast percentage of his shifts in the Flyers' defensive zone, yet his shots-for and shots-against ratio is close to even over the last week. Pittsburgh's only goal did come from Crosby, but it was because Nick Grossmann was puck-watching on the penalty kill and not paying attention, not anything to do with Couturier.

After breaking the 20-minute mark in a game just five times before this season, Couturier has hauled more than 20 six times under Berube alone.

"It's not easy minutes, playing against those lines on the other teams," Couturier said. "But I try to take pride in what I do. I take care of the little details, buy into the system, and do whatever I can to help the team."

Berube's coaching philosophy revolves around creating offense from defense. By that measure, Couturier's production at the other end could be on the upswing soon.

"I'm still confident in my offensive abilities," Couturier said. "I know I have the tools to produce offensively. I've just got to be patient."


Craig Berube on whether the Flyers sat back too much in the third period, cradling a 2-1 lead in Winnipeg:

"You still want to go play. You've got to go and force the issue. You've got to attack the other team, you can't sit back like that. We had a power play there in the third period, it wasn't very good. We could have won the game. The third periods in general this year are not where they need to be. I didn't see enough. I still think we can push more."

Stat watch
1: Times the Flyers have practiced the shootout, as they did for the first time yesterday.
24-44: Flyers' record in the shootout since it was instituted in 2005-06, worst in the NHL. Winnipeg is now 5-1 this season alone after Friday night's win over the Flyers (0-1).
5-for-10: Matt Read's career mark in the shootout, best on the team. Claude Giroux is second at 43.3 percent (13-for-30).
85.7 percent: Adam Hall's faceoff win percentage over the last five games (30-for-35).
76:34: Braydon Coburn's ice time during the three-game road trip, most on the team. Coburn was perhaps the Flyers' best player in Winnipeg. Coburn pales in comparison to Minnesota workhorse Ryan Suter, who logged 108:19 in a three-game stretch last week, the most by any player since ice time started being kept as an official stat in 2000-01.
The big question
Why did Craig Berube go with Kimmo Timonen (2-for-8 lifetime) instead of Jake Voracek (3-for-13) in the shootout in Winnipeg?
Penalty shot
Last Tuesday in Toronto, the NHL's 30 general managers got together to discuss extending overtime by 5 minutes at 3-on-3 in an attempt to produce a winner before the shootout. Nearly a decade after it was introduced, it's nice to see the GMs finally step up and try to limit the impact of the skills competition that ends up sometimes even leaving the "winner" confused.
But that won't solve the real problem with the current overtime/shootout setup: the point handed out to the loser. It clogs up the standings, allowing teams that aren't nearly as good to hang around in the standings. It's apparent the NHL likes the parity — even though there is a mostly clear dissection of haves and have-nots this season.
I'm all for a speedy resolution — after all, making my newspaper deadline is the only thing I root for at games — but letting a breakaway competition decide who makes or misses the playoffs seems whimsical and arbitrary. From here, the answer is to make shootout wins worth two points, regulation and overtime wins worth three points, and then you can still give out the charity point for hanging through 60 minutes with a tie.