PHILADELPHIA -- It's not often rookies play major roles on Stanley Cup contenders. But the Philadelphia Flyers wouldn't be where they are this season without the contribution of their rookies.
The Flyers got goals from three rookies Thursday en route to beating the Florida Panthers 5-0 for their fourth straight victory. The win moved them within two points of idle Pittsburgh for fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
Jose Theodore allowed five goals on 35 shots for the Panthers, who lost for the third time in the last four games. They entered Thursday's games with just a two-point lead on Winnipeg in the taut battle for the Southeast Division. It's also the fourth time in 18 games since the All-Star break they've been shut out.
Rookies Brayden Schenn, Matt Read and Eric Wellwood scored for the Flyers, pushing the team's League-high total to 49 from first-year players; the Buffalo Sabres are a distant second with 30. The Flyers also have used 12 first-year players this season, tied with the Minnesota Wild for the most in the League. Six of those rookies have made their NHL debuts this season, including defenseman Brandon Manning, who played his first-ever game Thursday in place of Pavel Kubina, who is day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
"There's lots of reasons why a team has success, but certainly they are a contributing factor," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said of his rookies. "They've all been given roles and (told) what we expect of them. They've done a really nice job."
Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr also scored goals, Claude Giroux added two assists to his League-leading total, and Danny Briere, playing in his 800th NHL game, also had a pair of assists.
Backstopping the effort was goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who stopped all 28 Florida shots for his fourth shutout of the season and second in his last three games. In the third period, Philadelphia fans applauded every save and chanted "Bryz."
"I was so concentrating on the game that I didn't hear it," Bryzgalov said. "But if they cheer for me, it's very nice and very kind of them."
If Bryzgalov didn't hear the fans, his teammates certainly did.
"It was a good feeling," Briere said. "I'm sure even more for him. He's started playing well and the fans are going to support you. It's a good feeling."
Also a good feeling was seeing team's rookies again play major roles.
Schenn opened the scoring midway through the first period when he scored off a bit of a broken play. Philadelphia was on the power play when Giroux, holding the puck on the left side of the Panthers' zone, tried to slide the puck to Hartnell in the high slot. Hartnell fanned on the shot, but the puck rolled to the other side of the ice to Schenn, who one-timed it past Theodore for his ninth of the season.
Read made it 2-0 at 3:06 of the second period, knocking the puck past Theodore during a scrum in front. The goal was Read's 19th, tops among NHL rookies.
"Obviously it's kind of special to lead the rookies in goals," Read said, "but at the same time it doesn't mean much. As long as we keep winning and keep playing well and doing the small things right. I'd rather be winning and having a good season as a team than anything individually.
Read is one away from being the first Flyer rookie to score 20 goals since Jeff Carter (23) and R.J. Umberger (20) did in the 2005-06 season.
"After I had the quick start, that was something that was a goal for myself," he said, "to get at least 20 goals this year. … You know it's obviously a big accomplishment as a rookie to get 20 goals, or for anybody. I'm happy to still be in the lineup and contributing to our team."
Read is far from the only rookie contributing, however. Couturier is third in the League at plus-16 and is a key penalty killer. Zac Rinaldo is third among rookie forwards with 119 hits and is second in the League with 177 penalty minutes.
"They've been solid all year long," said Hartnell, "whether it's Coots (Couturier) out there for the last draw or Rhino (Rinaldo) stepping up with a big hit or big fight, Wellwood as well, coming up and playing big minutes. It's everybody."
Panthers coach Kevin Dineen would like to see the same level of effort out of his players.
"It's a tough road game for us," he said. "Composure is the main issue for us right now. We've got quality veterans out there, but at the end of the day when you get them into games like this, you have to put 60 minutes in and that is something that we have not done in the last few weeks and we are going to need to do that successfully."
Hartnell made it 3-0 at 12:49 of the second when he tipped a Tomas Fleischmann pass, grabbed the loose puck, broke in alone on Theodore and beat him with a wrist shot. Jagr, playing limited minutes due to a hip injury, scored his 18th of the season with the Flyers skating on a 5-on-3 advantage.
Wellwood closed the scoring with 1:27 left when another rookie, defenseman Erik Gustafsson poked the puck away from Fleischmann and slid it over to Wellwood, who broke in and scored his third of the season.
The Panthers won't have long to dwell on the loss, as they try to hold onto their lead and get to the postseason for the first time since 2000. Their next game is Friday in Pittsburgh, against a Penguins team that has won seven straight.
"It is pretty much black and white right there in the papers every day," defenseman Brian Campbell said. "Have a look at it. You see what teams are doing; what Buffalo is doing, what Winnipeg is doing -- they are winning games. It could go pretty quick if you can't turn stuff around."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.