Without stars, Flyers face tough challenge at Lake Tahoe

Since the Flyers are playing Sunday’s game on the 18th hole of a Lake Tahoe golf course, let’s put it this way:

Facing the Boston Bruins without Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Travis Konecny & Co., coach Alain Vigneault might as well be playing Tiger Woods down a stroke with one hole to play.

It’s bad enough the Flyers are winless (0-2-2) in four games already vs. their East Division rivals.

But now they have to fly across the country for the 2 p.m., NBC-TV contest sans some of their biggest offensive weapons.

Well, at least the scenery will be nice.

Taking on the Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand might not be.

Vigneault, whose team is coming off a 3-2 shootout loss to the Rangers on Thursday night, will have to pull the proverbial rabbit out of his hat to beat Woods, er, the Bruins.

“Boston without a doubt is one of the top teams in the NHL,’’ Vigneault said in a Friday media Zoom call after practice at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, N.J. “They’ve played extremely well against us.

“I felt for the most part – other than that one game (a 6-1 loss at Boston) – we’ve been very competitive. It goes down to the end of the game, can you make a defensive play? That offensive play? Are you making that save?’’

>Couturier the ‘X’ factor

The Flyers didn’t have star center Sean Couturier for any of the first four games against the Bruins. With the Philadelphia lineup so depleted, No. 14 needs to step back into the spotlight and play his patented nail-down defensive style against the Bergeron gang.

“There’s no doubt that everyone around our team knows what ‘Coots’ brings not only on the ice but off the ice,’’ Vigneault said. “He’s considered one of the top centermen because he’s such an effective player in that 200-foot game.

“With him in the lineup Sunday, there’s no doubt we’re a better team.’’

Couturier has only played two games since coming back from a serious rib injury so he’s still rounding into shape.

“Their top line (Bergeron) is one of the top lines in the NHL,’’ Couturier said. “They’re tough to play against. They’re a big challenge. We’ll have to bring our ‘A’ game.’’

Bergeron has won the Frank Selke Trophy for best defensive forward four times. Last year, Couturier won his first.

>Hart gets the start

Carter Hart will get the start in goal. Hart missed the outdoor game in Pittsburgh a couple years ago due to injury so this is his first in the NHL.

“I’m definitely excited,’’ he said. “Got to play one in the Canada-U.S. World Junior game in Buffalo, so got a little experience. Looking forward to it. Should be a fun experience for all of us.’’

>Tough two-week quarantine for top players

Vigneault said he’s been in frequent contact with Giroux, Voracek and the rest of the quarantine crew. They’re trying to keep their spirits up but it hasn’t been easy.

“Jake has no symptoms, he’s champing at the bit,’’ Vigneault reported. “But he understands the situation.

“It’s not easy to spend 14 days at home. It’s a challenge. I remember talking (to the media) about my parents – my dad is one of the smartest people I know. Their confinement. . .it’s hard to stay (quarantined) for 14 days.

“They (the absent Flyers) are doing the best they can. They’re Facetiming their teammates, their families, their friends. Once they’re cleared to come back, hopefully it won’t take them too long to get back in stride and rhythm and they’ll be able to help us.’’

>Outdoor game takes players back to their roots

Many American, Canadian and European players learned how to play hockey on outdoor rinks, frozen ponds in their early youth.

NHL outdoor games bring this feeling back but the one at Lake Tahoe should really offer a special element because it’s in a natural setting – no seating for fans, a golf course setting, mountains in the background, etc.

“I’ve been part of three of these prior to Sunday and they’ve all been incredible experiences,’’ Vigneault said. “Without fans there, it’s going to be different.

“But when we were young and playing in the outdoor rinks or on the pond, there weren’t any fans and we were enjoying it. Without fans, it will feel different but I expect our players to enjoy the game.’’

Added Couturier: “Never been there. It seems to be a beautiful place. It’s exciting going there. Hopefully we can go there and get two points.’’

Is it worth the trouble of flying more than 5,000 miles (round-trip) in the time of the pandemic for one game?

“My honest answer to that would be, if we hadn’t been through what we’ve been through in the last little while with COVID, I think maybe we would see this in a different view,’’ Vigneault said.

“But at the end of the day, my view is: If the NHL thinks this can help the game and they ask us to be part of it, help the game and help grow the love of hockey, then I’m in. Hockey and the NHL have been very good to me, to the players. So if this is what we need to do to enhance and sell the game, then that’s what we have to do.’’

For Couturier, a veteran of these open-air events, the games haven’t lost their novelty.

“It’s always special, always memories you make throughout your career,’’ he said. “They’re the games that kind of stand out when you look back.

“The game seems to be a little different when you’re playing. You’re used to having fans, stands right against the wall. Now it’s just nature, trees, a golf course. It’s a different game and you keep it simple.’’

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About Wayne Fish 2444 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.

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