VOORHEES, N.J. – When you’ve allowed a team a bunch of goals in the regular season and the tentative plan is to match up a rookie against Pittsburgh superstar Evgeny Malkin, you better have your fingers crossed.
Are we talking about 2012 or 2018?
Well, in 2012, that’s exactly what the Flyers did, sending out 18-year-old Sean Couturier to face Malkin in a much ballyhooed playoff staredown.
How did that turn out? Couturier scored a hat trick in one game and handcuffed Malkin to the point where the Russian actually swung his stick with a two-hander to the young Flyer’s leg in frustration.
Fast forward six years and once again the Flyers might use a freshman by the name of Nolan Patrick to try to put the brakes on Malkin.
The fascinating matchup could unfold starting Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
While Flyers coach Dave Hakstol won’t say if he’s a hundred percent about Patrick (road teams don’t get last line change) there’s a good chance it could happen.
And Patrick is just fine with that. While he’s technically still a rookie, he’s played in 73 games, so the nerves might not be there as much as you think.
“Obviously it’s going to be a challenge,’’ Patrick said after Monday’s practice at the Skate Zone. “He (Malkin) is one of the best centermen in the league. Just try to embrace it and match up as best as I can.’’
The key might be composure. Don’t get too wrapped up in the importance of the moment.
“I’m more excited than I would be nervous,’’ Patrick said. “I know everything ramps up at playoff time but I’m excited to get going.’’
Couturier remembers that 2012 series and believes Patrick can do a similar job.
“That was a crazy series,’’ Couturier recalled. “Probably not like any other series, where it’s usually tight defensively. There were a lot of goals scored in that series (although Couturier held Malkin to just three in six games). Lot of momentum swings on both sides.
“There’s more on the line. Every little detail matters, whether it’s blocking a shot or chipping a puck out, winning a faceoff, all those little things can make a difference.’’
There’s always the little matter of three-time Stanley Cup champion Sidney Crosby, too, but Malkin had a better year, finishing with more points and a much higher plus-minus rating.
“You can’t overthink it,’’ Couturier said. “It’s the same thing, just much more at stake.’’
What advice can Couturier give Patrick?
“I don’t know who is going to have what assignment,’’ Couturier said. “From my experience six years ago, I was more a shutdown guy, playing with Max Talbot and Eric Wellwood.
“We were just defensive guys, shutting down lines. I think right now, we have a different team, so you can’t compare too much. He (Malkin) is a big guy, he can skate well. Tremendous skill. He’s one of the best in the league for no reason, you have to pay attention to him, take away his time and space.’’
Hakstol might use veteran Val Filppula against Malkin as well. But the Patrick assignment would be a tall one.
“It might change from game to game,’’ Hakstol said. “Most importantly, it’s going to be each and every player’s focus and level of play from shift to shift, regardless of who he (Malkin) is playing against.’’