When your team reigning MVP and Selke Trophy winner shows up for his first practice in three weeks, there’s cause for a sigh of relief.
And that’s what the Flyers were doing on Saturday with a collective exhale as Sean Couturier hit the ice at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, N.J.
Couturier, who suffered a rib cage-related injury in a collision with Pittsburgh’s Jared McCann in the second game of the season back on Jan. 15, skated with the team and felt no ill effects.
Coach Alain Vigneault said if Couturier continues to improve, he could be ready for one of the two upcoming games against the Capitals down in Washington – either Sunday’s noon matinee or Tuesday night’s encounter.
There’s no understating Couturier’s value and that’s been evident in the Flyers’ four recent losses (two regulation, one overtime, one shootout) to Boston.
In all four games, the Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand ran roughshod over the Flyers’ defenders.
If Couturier, who won the Selke as the best defensive forward in the NHL, had been on the ice, some of those games might have gone the other way.
“There’s no doubt he’s getting closer,’’ Vigneault said in a Saturday afternoon media Zoom call. “If (his return) is tomorrow or Tuesday, I’m not quite sure yet.
“This was his first practice with the team but he had been skating since the beginning (of his rehab). I’m not concerned at all about his conditioning and his timing. It’s just a matter of him feeling healthy.’’
Couturier needs clearance from the Flyers’ medical staff before he’s declared good to go.
Couturier was not made available for comment.
>Coach wants more from Hayes
While Kevin Hayes is off to a good start offensively, his defensive work leaves something to be desired, at least according to Vigneault.
Vigneault had Hayes practicing on a fourth line with Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Michael Raffl on Saturday, perhaps preparing for the return of Couturier, which would send Connor Bunnaman back to the bench/taxi squad.
The coach said not too much should be made of the practice alignment but did say Hayes needs to pick up his game a bit.
“I think Kevin can be better 200 feet,’’ Vigneault said. “There’s no doubt in my mind with the puck he’s created a lot – he’s been one of our best offensive players. He’s created a lot of offensive opportunities.
“I know Kevin real well. I know he can be better defensively. A little bit more stops and starts to his game and shorter shifts. One of the reasons he’s putting himself in tougher situations is he has a tendency to extend his shifts, gets caught out there tired and a lot of times it’s costing him.’’
>Update on other injuries
Oskar Lindblom was back at practice on Saturday after taking a hard hit in Friday night’s game in the third period and leaving the game.
“I don’t think I was really prepared for the hit,’’ Lindblom said. “He caught me off-guard a little bit. But I felt good today.’’
Lindblom said he will play Sunday. He says he still needs to improve his game.
Remember, he’s still on the comeback trail from Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
“Every game I’m feeling better and stronger,’’ said Lindblom, who has two goals/four points in 12 games with a plus-1. “I feel like I have to play with more confidence and do my thing out there. It’s a work in progress.’’
Goaltender Carter Hart did not suit up for the Boston game due to back spasms. He was not scheduled to start anyway. Hart said he’s feeling better.
Vigneault said Hart will get the start on Sunday.
“It (his back) just kind of tightened up yesterday,’’ Hart said. “I was erring on the side of caution. I know we have a big week coming up.’’
Vigneault said defenseman Phil Myers, who apparently suffered an upper-body injury in the Wednesday night game against Boston, is listed as day-to-day.
“I’m not ruling anything out,’’ Vigneault said. “I just don’t know what my lines are going to look like until I have a better idea of who’s available.’’
>Bunnaman valuable in reserve role
With Couturier sidelined for such a lengthy period of time, Bunnaman has filled in admirably on the fourth line.
In eight games, he’s registered one assist with a minus-1, which is just fine for a lower-line player.
“I thought I played pretty well the games I’ve been in,’’ Bunnaman said. “I’ve played a lot more late in the game than I did last year. We (Raffl, Aube-Kubel) all kind of know where the other is going to be. We just have that chemistry coming from last year.’’