PHILADELPHIA — If there were any doubts as to whether Sean Couturier would physically be able to play at a high level in Tuesday’s Flyers home opener against the Vancouver Canucks after not being able to practice a day earlier, he emphatically put them to rest late in the first period.
Awarded a penalty shot with 2:37 to go before the break, Couturier scored his first goal in nearly two years, and he did it in style.
After gathering the puck at the center ice dot, he pivoted at the top of the right circle and turned to show the back of his sweater to goalie Thatcher Demko, before wheeling around and banging a shot off the inside of the far post and in.
The score gave the Flyers a 2-0 lead and turned out to be the final marker of the evening. It was an important one, too, as the Canucks looked primed to score the equalizer earlier in the frame. Instead, it seemed to deflate them, as the Flyers took control in the second period and upped their season record to 2-1-0.
Sean Couturier scores on the penalty shot to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead. His first goal in nearly two years. pic.twitter.com/XeyaPhRhv3
— Ryan Quigley (@ryanquigz) October 17, 2023
A few hours before the game, Couturier confirmed that he would be able to go after missing a team practice the previous day. More importantly, he also confirmed that the reason he didn’t skate was not related to a pair of back surgeries that cost him all of last season and most of 2021-22.
But he also left clear that, at 30 years old now (31 on Dec. 7), he is still adjusting to his new reality.
“I guess my body is not used to that anymore,” he said about two hours before puck drop. “It’s starting to get back into the rhythm. It was just precautionary to get that extra day (off on Monday) and feel better today. It is what it is. It’s part of the business.”
His skipping practice from time to time for extra maintenance isn’t likely to be an isolated incident, either.
“I know it was brought up,” he said. “I don’t know how much I’ll need it or when I’ll need it. I’m sure at one point when there’s optional (skates) and a lot of games in a short amount of time, they’ll manage my load management with practices. We’ll see once we get there.”
And while Couturier’s game — and his first goal since Dec. 10, 2021, in Las Vegas — was the biggest on-ice occurrence Tuesday, there was a notable off-ice development, too. Morgan Frost was a healthy scratch for the game after he struggled in his first two games of the season.
John Tortorella simply said that Frost was removed from the lineup because “other guys are playing better.” The coach revealed he texted Frost earlier in the day, but didn’t plan on having a sit down with the center until Wednesday, when the team convenes for an off-day practice.
At the top of that list of those “other guys” is rookie Bobby Brink, who was reinserted into the lineup after playing in the opener in Columbus but sitting on Saturday in Ottawa. Brink skated on a line with Noah Cates and Joel Farabee, and although he is still looking for his first point on the season, he was noticeable throughout the game in registering four shots on goal and five shot attempts total.
As a line, Brink, Farabee and Cates registered an 82.3 expected-goals share, leading the team, including a 7-2 advantage in scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick. Of Brink’s 16:01 of ice time, 4:13 of it came on the power play, most among forwards.
Tortorella praised Brink’s ability to make “subtle little plays,” as well as his awareness away from the puck.
“He’s played very well, and he deserves what he’s getting,” said the coach.
In other words, Brink almost certainly won’t be coming out of the lineup when the Flyers host Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday, and considering they outshot the Canucks 42-25, there’s a good chance Tortorella won’t make any other lineup changes, either. That includes keeping Egor Zamula in after the young defenseman put the Flyers up 1-0 with his first career goal just 1:45 into the game when he deftly found a shooting lane from high in the offensive zone.
“Torts says for me to shoot the puck more,” Zamula said. “So I tried to shoot, and good shot by me.”
Tuesday’s win, though, was still primarily about Couturier, who said before the game that he was “excited to see the fans” in his return to the ice at the Wells Fargo Center.
Yes, this season is likely to be more of a slog for him physically than when he was first breaking into the league more than a decade ago.
But he’s just glad to be in the midst of it once again.
“I’m 30 now, not in my 20s anymore,” Couturier said. “That’s kind of what I missed the most about the game, though, going through that grind. Here I am at Game 3. It’s fun.”
(Photo of Sean Couturier scoring a penalty shot on Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko: John Geliebter / USA Today)