Philadelphia Flyers' Sean Couturier, left, takes control of the puck away from Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin during the first period in Game 6 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series, Sunday, April 22, 2012, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Tom Mihalek)
VOORHEES, N.J. - Some of the biggest contributors for the Philadelphia Flyers in their first-round win over Pittsburgh were players too young to really grow those scraggly playoff beards.
Sean Couturier was only 16 when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup victory in 2009. Just last spring, he watched the NHL playoffs on television. Now, the rookie centre is right in the middle of it all, and he's standing up to the big boys.
"I just go out there and prepare myself for every game like it's any game," Couturier said Tuesday. "Obviously, when you play against guys you watched on TV like Crosby and Malkin, you can't get intimidated when you are out there. You just have to play your game and show what you got."
So far, so good. The Flyers became the first Eastern Conference team to advance to Round 2 on Sunday, when Philadelphia hammered Pittsburgh, 5-1, in Game 6.
Couturier had a hat trick in Philadelphia's 8-5 comeback win at Pittsburgh in Game 2 of the series. Perhaps even more important, though, was his defensive performance. Couturier held Malkin, the NHL's scoring leader in the regular season, without a goal through the first three games as the Flyers took a commanding 3-0 lead.
And those efforts drew high praise from teammates.
"I don't think I've seen anybody in my hockey career that good defensively at such a young age," veteran forward Jaromir Jagr said. "I would say he's our best defensive forward. Maybe Ron Francis was kind of like that. He's strong. I think he's so smart for his age. He plays like he would have played for 20 years. He knows where to go, not over-skate anything, not overplay. He's always in the right place.
"Hopefully he can do that the whole playoffs."
Couturier, 19, is one of seven rookies that saw action in Philadelphia's six Round 1 games. Matt Read, who led all rookies with 24 goals during the season, had two goals and two assists. Brayden Schenn had two goals and six points.
Even Erik Gustafsson made an impact after starting the series in the minors. He came up midway through the series, played the final two games, and scored a goal in the clincher.
"It's kind of a surreal feeling to be on the ice," Gustafsson said. "It's a great group of guys, everyone is having fun. To get in and play—in that kind of atmosphere in front of the home crowd—is unbelievable. It's definitely the most fun I ever had playing hockey."
Eric Wellwood, Zac Rinaldo and Marc-Andre Bourdon are the other rookies on the team's roster. Without all of them, it's unlikely the Flyers would be here. After making massive off-season changes, including trading captain Mike Richards and fellow star Jeff Carter on the same day, it appeared the Flyers would be in a rebuilding mode.
But the rookies and some other new acquisitions—Jagr, Jakub Voracek, Max Talbot, Wayne Simmonds—blended in nicely with the remaining core. Claude Giroux elevated his game to superstar status, Scott Hartnell had a career year, and the Flyers put themselves in position to make a lengthy run.
"We had a lot of guys that were pretty green behind the ears," veteran defenceman Braydon Coburn said, "that stepped in and played well and played pretty important roles for us considering we had a lot of turnover last season."
Giroux, who is only 24 himself, credits the rookies for helping the team overcome injuries throughout the season.
"They did a good job of stepping up," he said. "Somebody would always step in and log a lot of minutes on the ice and they've been doing a good job of it."
After knocking off heavily favoured Pittsburgh, the Flyers are waiting for the next opponent. The rookies couldn't have asked for a better way to get their first taste of the playoffs than a series that featured just about everything against the Penguins.
"The first couple games, the fighting, the scrums after the whistles, the hard hitting, it was good to get your feet wet that way rather than working it in slow," Read said. "I certainly don't feel like a rookie. I'm sure it's the same with the other guys. It's the playoffs and you just want to play your best and help the team win."
The Flyers won't know who they'll play in the Eastern Conference semifinals before Thursday. The top-seeded New York Rangers host Ottawa in Game 7 on Thursday night. The Rangers swept the season series against Philadelphia, winning all six games. Naturally, that would be one opponent the Flyers would prefer not to see.
But if that's the case, no one is saying it.
Not even the rookies.
"We're comfortable playing against any team," Schenn said. "We can't pick or choose. Once we get to the second round, it doesn't get any easier so it doesn't really matter who it is."
Spoken like a true veteran.