Outcoached in 2011 Playoffs, Laviolette Turns in Masterful Effort Against Penguins

Photo Courtesy of Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

By Charlie O’Connor (@THG_Charlie)

After the Philadelphia Flyers’ four game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins that ended the team’s reign as Eastern Conference Champions, Peter Laviolette rightfully received his fair share of the blame for the crushing defeat.

This year, his coaching has given them an opportunity to take back their title.

Laviolette was nothing short of masterful in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins, through line matching, trusting his young players, and providing just the right motivational tactics necessary for the Flyers to defeat their higher-seeded rivals.

In 2011, Laviolette repeatedly matched Daniel Briere’s line against Boston’s top line of David Krejci, Nathan Horton, and Milan Lucic, to disastrous results. Briere was a -6 in the series, as the Krejci line consistently pinned Briere and his linemates in their own end, leading to repeated quality chances and even strength goals against.

This year, Laviolette showed that he learned his lesson.

In fact, Laviolette began preparing his lines for a possible matchup against Pittsburgh weeks in advance. Midway through March, Laviolette constructed the Sean Couturier shutdown line, flanked by Maxime Talbot.

Using a 19-year old rookie as a pure shutdown center was a radical coaching decision. But Laviolette, fully aware of his young center’s strengths and deficiencies, made the call that Couturier was ready to step into the crucial role. And Couturier would not disappoint, successful stymieing Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Alexander Ovechkin in late season regular season contests.

The experience did well to prepare Couturier for his most difficult assignment yet: shutting down his favorite player, Malkin, over a full seven-game series.

The 19-year old rookie frustrated the likely league MVP all series long. Malkin finished with only one even strength point in the series while Couturier was on the ice, coming in the 10-3 debacle in Game 4. Aside from that game, Malkin was a non-factor at even strength when facing Sean Couturier.

Because Couturier was taking on the toughest shifts against Evgeni Malkin, Claude Giroux spent most of the series battling Sidney Crosby. Crosby got his points (five even strength points in the series), but Giroux was the series’ true superstar. With 14 points in six games (including nine even strength points), Giroux sits atop the NHL leaderboard in playoff scoring.

Laviolette bet that Giroux would outplay Sidney Crosby in a head-to-head matchup, and he was right.

The Flyers’ only struggling line proved to be the Daniel Briere line, in a repeat of 2011. Briere, Brayden Schenn, and Wayne Simmonds went a combined -16 in Games 4 and 5, and labored to contain Jordan Staal and his linemates.

But unlike last season, Laviolette adjusted.

In Game 6, Simmonds was dropped to the Matt Read line, and Jakub Voracek was promoted to the Briere line. Voracek, better at puck possession and more defensively responsible than Simmonds, helped to stabilize the line and, at the same time, to reignite it offensively. Briere’s second period goal in Game 6, 36 seconds after an Evgeni Malkin power play tally that cut the Flyers’ lead to 3-1, proved to be the final nail in the Penguins’ postseason coffin.

As shown by his trust in Couturier, the 24-year old Giroux, and the 22-year old Voracek, Laviolette was unafraid to place his young forwards in key positions in the lineup. After Game 6, it became clear that faith extended to his young defensemen, as well.

Erik Gustafsson, a rookie in his second career NHL playoff start, entered the lineup likely expecting sheltered minutes in a role on the Flyers’ third defensive pairing.

Instead, in Game 6, Gustafsson received 22:09 minutes, fourth on the team in total ice time, behind only Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle, and Claude Giroux. Laviolette gave him the responsibility of shutting down both Malkin and Crosby, essentially replacing injured defenseman Nicklas Grossmann.

An offensive defenseman with 34 games of NHL experience being used in a shutdown role. Not exactly a conventional decision by Laviolette.

But yet again, Laviolette’s faith in his young talent was rewarded. Gustafsson finished with a +3 rating, seven blocked shots, and even a goal that slipped by a surprised Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Flyers a 3-0 lead.

“Defensively, he played a heck of a game,” Laviolette said following the victory.

Laviolette lauded the performances of his young players throughout the entirety of the series, and the season.

“All the young players within their roles have done an outstanding job all year, this is their first opportunity at the playoffs and we haven’t handled it any different. And their play has been any different – they’ve done everything.”

And, of course, Laviolette remains the master of the timeout.

His timeout in Game 1 helped slow down a furious Pittsburgh salvo to open the series, as the Flyers outscored the Penguins 4-1 throughout the rest of the game to win in overtime, 4-3. Laviolette would repeat his successful timeout strategy in Game 2, settling his team down after falling behind 2-0 yet again after a Chris Kunitz goal in the first period. The result? A calmer, sharper Philadelphia team that would erupt for eight goals throughout the rest of the game.

According to Rob Parent of The Times Herald, Laviolette’s demeanor during his timeouts in Games 1 & 2 dramatically differed in tone.

“One he screamed, one he was cool,” Jaromir Jagr said. “And once he said, ‘You guys have nothing to lose,’ so we try to win it.”

Press any button, and it works. Laviolette and Flyers can only hope that the coach’s magic touch lasts for three more rounds.

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