Flyers' rookies making major impact

Philadelphia Flyers' Harry Zolnierczyk congratulates teammate Brayden Schenn on his goal against...

Philadelphia Flyers' Harry Zolnierczyk congratulates teammate Brayden Schenn on his goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first period of their NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania April 7, 2012. (REUTERS/Jason Cohn)

Rob Longley, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 7:31 PM ET

PITTSBURGH - All around the NHL, there are optimistic general managers who talk about the riches that await with prospects in their system.

The rationalization sells better in some markets than others, like the self-proclaimed centre of the hockey universe, for example.

Then there are the Philadelphia Flyers, who had no viable choice this season to wait and cash in their futures.

No fewer than six rookies were in the Flyers lineup here Wednesday night, some of them logging big minutes and ultimately providing huge points in the dramatic 4-3 overtime win against the Penguins in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal.

If there was any stage fright in the curtain raiser, it was gone by the first intermission as the Flyers launched their counter-attack to the Penguins 3-0 lead.

One rookie in particular went to work.

It was quite a debut for the 20-year-old Brayden Schenn, who in his first NHL playoff game had a goal, two assists and showed signs of being the prototypical big-bodied winger so many teams crave.

"Last night was a big game for Brayden, but it's not something that just popped up," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said following practice Thursday afternoon. "He's been a really strong player for us the last half dozen to 10 games."

And he's not alone among the rookies in orange and black. Over the course of the 82-game schedule, the Flyers used 12 first-year players for a total of 445 man games, second most in franchise history.

Among the other freshman in the Flyers' lineup on Wednesday was Matt Read, an undrafted free agent who was fourth in the league in rookie scoring (24 goals, 23 assists). Then there is centre Sean Couturier, the team's first-round pick last June. All he did was shut down NHL leading scorer Evgeni Malkin on the many shifts Laviolette was able to get that matchup.

How can so many first-year players have such a meaningful impact? Part of it is talent, of course, and part of it is mindset. If you think you are a rookie, you'll play like one.

"My first year (former Penguins coach "Badger" Bob Johnson) said after 50 games, you're not a rookie anymore," Flyers 40-year-old forward Jaromir Jagr said. "I think 50 games is what you need in the NHL to feel comfortable.

"They all played the whole season and played great. Most of them have big responsibilities on the team."

While it's odd for a team not in a major rebuild to have six rookies in the lineup, it was necessary after the team traded Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, their captain and leading scorer, respectively, last summer.

There were several reasons for Paul Holmgren to make the move, among the biggest being to clear room to sign goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract.

While there were just enough veterans around to carry the load -- plus the addition of Jagr -- if the Flyers were to go anywhere this season, they were going to need some rookies to make an impact.

"I think this year is maybe different from anything I've dealt with in the past," Laviolette said. "There's always rookies, but these young players come into the game now and are able to contribute at a really young age and without much experience.

"They've handled a lot of responsibility. (Wednesday) was a difficult environment, not one you can just talk about. To be still standing at the end says a lot about where they are with their confidence."

In the series opener, without a doubt the biggest story was Schenn, little brother of Maple Leafs defenceman Luke, who finally represented the family in the post-season. He came out hitting and didn't look a stitch out of place on the Flyers' second line with Daniel Briere and Wayne Simmonds.

"Every time he hasn't been injured, he's improved by leaps and bounds," Simmonds said. "He's so confident with the puck, he's a big body and he plays the game the right way. You see him improving almost every night he's out there.

"He's not afraid to be physical and he's got a lot of offensive upside."

And, for one night at least, a share of the scoring lead in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/longleysunsport


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