Creation of new shutdown line makes Flyers a more formidable playoff foe

Photo Courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

By Charlie O’Connor (@THG_Charlie)

During the regular season, Peter Laviolette has been content to use three scoring lines on a nightly basis, preferring overwhelm the opposition with pure firepower rather than emphasizing line matching.

But with the playoffs quickly approaching, Laviolette has taken a different approach.

“[Sean] Couturier’s line against the other team’s top line for the last eight or nine games now has looked really good,” Laviolette noted following the team’s 7-1 thrashing of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

That’s an understatement.

The Flyers’ new shutdown line, anchored by rookie Sean Couturier and Maxime Talbot, has been asked to take on the most difficult matchups for the past three weeks.  And with the help of Zac Rinaldo and Jakub Voracek, who have rotated as the second winger on the shutdown line, the new tactic has been an unqualified success.

Until a March 11th loss to the New Jersey Devils, Couturier and his linemates had been used mostly as a standard 3rd/4th line. But in the rematch two days later at the Wells Fargo Center, the combination of Couturier, Talbot, and Rinaldo were used exclusively against the Devils’ top line of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and Adam Henrique.

The Flyers were victorious, by a score of 3-0. Following that resounding victory, Peter Laviolette seemingly designated the Couturier line as the true tough minutes line on the Flyers.

And the minutes have certainly been tough. Since the New Jersey victory, the line has been given the assignment of shutting down three of the NHL’s most talented players: Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, and Alexander Ovechkin.

Their “easy” matchups? John Tavares, Patrice Bergeron, Stephen Weiss, Jason Spezza, and Max Pacioretty. Not exactly a cake walk.

The line’s contents have evolved over time. Initially, Couturier was flanked by Talbot and Zac Rinaldo. But after Talbot suffered an injury against the Boston Bruins, Jakub Voracek temporarily replaced him. While Talbot only missed one contest (a matinee matchup against his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins), Voracek now receives regular shifts with Couturier and Talbot, splitting time with Rinaldo and giving the line an added offensive boost throughout the game.

“I think that the checking line did a terrific job the way it was,” Laviolette said following the change. “But putting [Voracek] up there gives it a little bit more of an offensive flare.”

Still, the true stalwarts of the new line are Couturier and Talbot. And their performances have been eye-opening.

In addition to battling the opposition’s best players, Couturier and Talbot have also taken the vast majority of their faceoffs in the defensive end. In the past nine games, Couturier has received 65.4% of his non-neutral zone faceoffs in the defensive zone. Talbot is close behind, taking 58.7% of his draws in the defensive end. Despite the tough shifts, Couturier has managed a +1 rating, while Talbot is a -1.

The pair’s puck possession numbers are even more impressive.

When Couturier has been on the ice during even strength the past nine games, the Flyers have outshot the opposition 58-49, despite the elite competition he is facing and the difficult zone starts. When adding in missed shots and blocked shots, the Flyers have outshot the opposition 124-112 (52.5%) while Couturier is on the ice. With Talbot on the ice, the Flyers have led the opposition 101-75 (57.3%) in total shots directed on net. In other words, despite the extremely difficult quality of competition, the Couturier line is nonetheless carrying the play.

As a veteran grinder, Maxime Talbot would seem to be a logical choice for a role as a shutdown forward. But the 19 year-old rookie Sean Couturier, one year removed from juniors?

The young center has clearly earned the trust and respect of his first NHL head coach.

“With every opportunity that [Couturier has] gotten from training camp up until the time I’m sitting here speaking now, he’s never disappointed us,” Laviolette said.

“He’s a quality person, and a quality player. And he’s learning all the time, getting better and improving, and the experience that he’s gaining is so valuable to his development right now.”

Laviolette pointed to Couturier’s gradual progression from fourth-line center to shutdown line anchor as a key reason for his current success.

“I think Sean’s had a good year to this point. He was brought along slowly, even though he was given big situations at the beginning of the year, his role has increased.”

With Couturier’s line taking on the toughest assignments and flourishing, Flyers’ top scorers are receiving comparably easy shifts.

Claude Giroux, who has spent most of this season functioning as both the Flyers’ top scorer and heaviest lifter in terms of quality of competition, is finally getting a chance to focus purely on offense. Over the past eight games, Giroux has received 57.7% of his non-neutral zone even strength faceoffs in the offensive zone. Prior to the March 13th Devils game, Giroux had received only 45% of his faceoffs in prime scoring areas.

His puck possession stats have drastically improved, accordingly. Since the creation of the Couturier shutdown line, when Giroux is on the ice, the Flyers have 57.9% of all shots directed at the net, compared to 52.3% before the March 13th Devils game.

As Couturier and Talbot take the toughest shifts, Giroux, Jaromir Jagr, and Scott Hartnell now can focus on one thing at even strength – goal scoring. The move should pay dividends in the postseason, as Giroux will be taking on second and third line competition rather than the first liners that he has been seeing all season long.

With the creation of a true shutdown line, the Flyers are becoming a more efficient even strength team. And just in time for the playoffs.

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