The Philadelphia Flyers began preparations for their first round series with their cross state rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, with the basic understanding that they would be in for a proverbial war.
In this war, both teams possess weapons that have the ability to strike quickly or prevent such occurrences from happening.
For Philadelphia, a major point of need in this season is to limit the threat of the league’s leading scorer, Evgeni Malkin and of course, the preeminent threat of the best player in the league when healthy, Sidney Crosby. Shut them down and the Penguins become less of a threat and thereby increase the likelihood of their success in the series.
One of the players who will likely be tasked with stopping the Penguins primary offensive threats is Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn. Standing 6’5 and weighing 220lbs, the hulking Coburn has long been working with the responsibility of being a shutdown defenseman.
Acquired from the now- defunct Atlanta Thrashers for D Alexei Zhitnik on February 24, 2007, Coburn is now the team’s longest tenured player. His combination of size and strength made him the eighth overall selection of the Thrashers in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
The role of defensive stopper is one that Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette mapped out for him within the system and he’s been an underrated reason why Philadelphia finished their 2011-2012 campaign so strongly.
“(Coburn’s) such an important piece to our puzzle,” Laviolette said. “A hulking defenseman who can play against anybody and can log the minutes he can is so important. He’s someone who’s been really reliable in terms of his durability really helps our team.”
For a sizable stretch of his career, Coburn was (and occasionally still is) paired with veteran partner Kimmo Timonen. The twosome was a key component to Philadelphia’s charge to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. As the years passed, Coburn learned some of the tricks of the defensive trade from his elder, despite their obvious difference in size.
“Just to look at Kimmo, he’s not the biggest guy out there, but he thinks the game so well,” Coburn said. “The thing you learn by watching him is how he reads the play. You learn how to do things at the right time and not just run around and be physical. It’s all about how you play your position. Anybody’s who a fan of the game and appreciates that knows how important that is.”
Since a February 17 trade with the Dallas Stars for 27 year old defenseman Nicklas Grossmann, Coburn found himself a new defensive partner and in more situations that call upon the other aspects of his skill set.
Coburn has an offensive component to his game that has been seen in the past. During the 2007-2008 season, Coburn notched a career high in offensive numbers with nine goals and 27 assists for 36 points. Since then, Coburn’s role has changed, but those not quite dormant offensive instincts still resided in him.
With Grossmann, who plays a hard, clean, no frills style of defense, coupled with a crisp outlet pass and good mobility for a 6’4, 230lb frame, Coburn has been able to harness more of his capabilities, specifically his hard low shot from the point or to pinch in and attack the offensive zone himself.
During the final 20 games of the season, from March 1 to April 7, Coburn put up his best stretch of offensive production this season, notching a goal and seven assists for eight points and a plus eight rating. Coburn finished his 2011-2012 campaign with four goals and 20 assists for 24 points and a plus 10 rating.
In comparing Timonen and Grossmann, while the two defensemen’s attributes and styles of play couldn’t appear to be more different from one another, Coburn sees a lot of similarities.
“They’re both veteran guys and the common denominator with both of them is that they’re really smart, especially on the defensive side of the puck. Kimmo’s not as big as Grossy, but he’s so extremely sound. He is always where you think he’s going to be. In that respect, it’s what makes him a perfect partner.”
“Grossy keeps the game simple, just a big strong physical guy. For me, I don’t have to change my style of play with either of them, but the treat for me with them is that they make the game easier for me.”
So in having a brand new defensive partner, Coburn was expected to help take on the role of mentoring and helping the Swede to adapt to the rigors of playing Laviolette’s way. Considering their performance together since they were put together, the results speak for themselves.
“(For Coburn and Grossmann), it really identified a role for the both of them coming in when we paired them together,” Laviolette said. “Sometimes a role helps you adapt more quickly. They were paired together and given an assignment, handled those roles and have really done a tremendous job since being together.”
Not to mention the fact that you have a combined 450 pounds of serious muscle leaning on those opposing forwards, they become the hockey equivalent of an eclipse.
As injuries began to mount during February and March, Coburn was called upon to shoulder more on ice responsibility. In six games in a time span of March 1st to April 1st, Coburn logged more than 25 minutes. In seven games during that stretch, he handled 30 or more shifts, topping out at 37 shifts during the Flyers 6-4 victory at Pittsburgh on April 1st.
It goes to Laviolette’s point about his durability, along with his reliability and it’s something that Coburn relishes.
“Any defenseman will tell you that they want to get as much ice time as possible. The thing that’s nice about that is that it gets into a groove and get into as many situations as you can. You get a real pulse for the game.”
With that, Coburn and the rest of his teammates prepare for the war of attrition that lies ahead with the Penguins, but in those preparations, he doesn’t see a need to try to adapt a different tact when playing Crosby, Malkin, and company.
“(Tactically) Pittsburgh uses a sweeping trap, but you’ve got to be aware they have dynamic players who can put the puck in the net,” Coburn said. “We don’t try to adapt to them, we try to impose our will on them. We try to set the tempo and the pace of the game.”
In that mindset lies the secret to Philadelphia’s relative recent success against Pittsburgh and it’s a philosophy that Coburn, Grossmann, Timonen, and company must adhere to if they plan to win this first round series, starting Wednesday night.
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