VOORHEES – Spectators blinked. Players smiled. Cameras zoomed in.
Could it be? Was that really No. 19 out there zipping around the Skate Zone ice surface on Wednesday morning?
Indeed it was.
For the first time since late October, Flyers center Nolan Patrick took part in his first practice, albeit on a day when coach Alain Vigneault decided to have contact-free drills only.
Patrick, sidelined from game action the entire season due to a chronic migraine headache condition, had been skating on his own – on and off – for quite some time.
But on Wednesday, he felt good enough to join his teammates for a spirited workout.
To say his teammates were pleased to see him on the ice again would be a vast understatement.
Neither Patrick nor general manager Chuck Fletcher was made available for comment but Vigneault and a number of players were.
If nothing else, the appearance is leading to speculation that Patrick might return sometime during the last 29 games of this season.
Vigneault cautioned that it was only one workout.
“As far as I know, there are no medical updates,’’ Vigneault said after the practice. “I decided to make this a skill day. When Nolan found this was going to be a skill day, he wanted to go out and skate with the guys. That’s the extent of it.’’
Vigneault smiled and added, “It created a little buzz though.’’
Not only is it safe to say Patrick wants to get back to help his teammates but this is also the final year of his three-year entry level contract. Playing in 20 or so games would definitely boost his stock for a new deal.
“I don’t think many of us can imagine what he has to go through,’’ Jake Voracek said. “Third year, contract year. Expecting big things out of him and then all of a sudden you’re out for three-quarters of the season. It’s really hard mentally. When he comes back, I’m sure it’s going to make him stronger because of what he’s had to go through.’’
If Patrick does come back, the Flyers will be even stronger down the middle. Currently they have Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes in the first three pivot slots.
“It’s going to be a great feeling for him to get out with the boys,’’ Voracek said. “It wasn’t quite a regular practice today but being with the guys, I’m sure it feels pretty good for him.
“He’s a big part of our team. When he comes back, it’s going to be huge boost. I’m excited to get him back.’’
Other players expressed similar sentiments.
“It’s good to have him out there,’’ Scott Laughton said. “We see him off the ice all the time. But it’s good to see him out there with the boys.’’
Patrick seemed to be in good spirits, smiling even during line rushes.
“If he’s skating out there with us, he’s got to be feeling a little bit better,’’ Laughton said. “You know how skilled he is and everything he can do with the puck. He can only help us.’’
Brian Elliott has seen progress in Patrick’s game over the past two previous seasons.
“He’s such a skilled guy,’’ Elliott said. “Some of the new guys here who haven’t played with him are pretty impressed with what he can do.
“We’re just pulling for him. We’re all in his corner to getting back to what he needs to play. He’s such a big part of this team, a big part of this group. Everybody’s got his back.’’
Shayne Gostisbehere, just getting back from knee surgery, knows it’s been a difficult journey for No. 19.
“I don’t know anything (from a medical standpoint) but I think it’s good for him (to practice) mentally,’’ Gostisbehere offered. “Just to see him out there is definitely a boost for our team.’’
For Giroux, a possible Patrick return can only help the Flyers down the stretch. And possibly get him back to left wing, where’s he been more effective. Since moving to center, he’s had just three assists in the last five games.
“He looks good, he’s got a skill set that not a lot of guys have,’’ Giroux said. “He’s been through a lot. As teammates, you really can’t do much to help him. We want to see him back in the lineup.
“It’s been tough, you try to support him. You don’t want to ask him everyday how he’s feeling. It gets kind of annoying. But he’s a great kid and good things are going to happen for him.’’