PITTSBURGH – He is 19. He is 19 and facing the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. He is 19 and matched up against the favorite to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. He is 19 and posing for pictures in the dressing room, smiling with false teeth and holding a hat-trick puck from an 8-5 victory – another comeback for the Philadelphia Flyers, a wild one that gave them a 2-0 lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins in this first-round playoff series.
Sean Couturier is 19 but you would never know it. Not by the way that he played Friday night, containing superstar Evgeni Malkin, scoring three key goals. Not by the way that he reacted afterward, reminding reporters that the nets were in the same place, that the red line and blue lines were in the same place, as if this were some hockey version of "Hoosiers." Asked when he was most nervous in his hockey career, he said: "Ah, I don't know. It's tough."
The answer would have been easy for a normal kid. The answer might have been, you know, "Tonight." But this is not a normal kid.
"Don't forget," said Flyers winger Jaromir Jagr, a 40-year-old veteran, "he has to play against probably the best player in the league, Malkin. If he wouldn't score any goals, I would say he had a great game, but he played great defense and also scored three goals. I don't know if I have any words to describe his game today. Awesome. Maybe something better than that. He was unbelievable."
It was an unbelievable game – a throwback to the wide-open days of the early '90s or the '80s. "Early '70s, I would say," Jagr said. There was skating and scoring. There were big saves and bit hits. All that was missing was defense and the skull-cracking nonsense people expected from two bitter rivals. (If you were looking for that, you needed to watch Nashville-Detroit.)
These were two of the highest-scoring teams in the NHL in the regular season – Pittsburgh first, Philadelphia tied for second – and they put on a show. You were holding your breath, if you could pause to take a breath. The Flyers spotted the Penguins two goals for the fifth straight meeting, and they came back to win for the fourth time.
It was 2-0.
Then it was 3-1.
Then it was 3-3.
Then it was 4-3.
Then the puck found Couturier and he slapped it into an open net with 2.8 seconds left in the second period. It was 4-4. "I was kind of lucky there," he said.
Though the Penguins took the lead again just 1:04 into the third, Couturier responded 17 seconds later. He knocked down an attempted pass by Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy, broke in on net and boom. It was 5-5. "I didn't really have much time to think about it," he said.
Finally, with the Flyers clinging to a 6-5 lead late in the game, Couturier slapped home a pass from Claude Giroux on the rush. It was 7-5. It was over. Giroux put a bow on it, completing his own hat trick with an empty-net goal. As a bonus, Couturier earned an assist.
"Couts played an unbelievable game, obviously," Giroux said.
There's that word again.
It's unbelievable that Couturier is here at all. The Flyers shook the foundation of their franchise last summer when general manager Paul Holmgren traded captain Mike Richards and sniper Jeff Carter. As part of the deal that shipped Carter to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Flyers received the eighth pick in the draft. Couturier wasn't supposed to last that long, but scouts picked him apart and he fell. One of the reasons, according to an NHL exec, is that players coming out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League are tagged as not strong defensively.
Couturier fell to the Flyers in the draft. He showed up to training camp as an 18-year-old. He had a lot to prove to the veterans and the coaches, but he proved it. He made the team.
"This kid, I wasn't sold on him right off the bat in training camp and stuff like that, didn't know if he was going back to junior," said Flyers vet Scott Hartnell. "But every game, he's impressed me."
Coach Peter Laviolette started giving the kid eight or nine minutes. Then he started giving him 10 or 11 minutes. Then he started giving him 14 or 15 minutes – and not easy minutes, hard minutes. Tough matchups. Penalty kills. The last quarter of the season, Laviolette started pitting him against the best.
Couturier finished the regular season with 13 goals and 27 points, numbers that probably didn't earn him many votes for rookie-of-the-year honors. Didn't matter. He was plus-18. He had earned his coach's trust.
"He may not win the Calder because he didn't put up 50 points, but he had a terrific year," Laviolette said. "I do think that he plays older than he is."
Said Jagr: "I don't think I saw in my hockey career somebody that good defensively at a young age, and he showed it the first 10 games he played in the season – and the coach saw it right away. … I would say he's our best defensive forward at age 18, 19. Maybe Ron Francis was kind of like that, but 18, 19 years old …
"He's strong, but I think he's so smart for his age. I think he play like he would play for 20 years. The awareness where to go, not overskate anything, not overplay. Just be right place, right time. That's what they call defense."
It might seem funny to praise someone's defense after an 8-5 game. But consider this: Malkin put up 109 points in the regular season, and he won the scoring title by a dozen points. He has two assists and is minus-5 in the first two games of this series. Couturier has three goals and an assist, and he is plus-3.
And consider this: Except for last Saturday's meaningless regular-season finale, the Flyers are 7-0-0 at the Consol Energy Center. They haven't lost a meaningful game in Pittsburgh since the Penguins left the old Igloo, which is now in mid-demolition across the street.
As this series shifts to Philadelphia, it is far from over. The Boston Bruins dropped their first two games at home last season and still won the Stanley Cup. The Penguins have the talent to come back.
But first they have to stop the Flyers from coming back game after game after game. They have to find a way tighten up against a team that is loose – loose in a good way, exemplified by a teenager who is either too cool or has no idea how hard this is supposed to be.
"Once you get out there, after your first shift, it's just like any other game," Couturier said. "Just work hard and have fun."
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