Never underestimate the determination of a hockey player driven by a cause.
Or, in the Flyers’ case on Saturday in Buffalo, four players with such incentive.
The Flyers saw the kind of impact a player coming off the COVID list could have on Thursday night when captain Claude Giroux assisted on three of four goals in a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers.
It was more of the same for a matinee tilt against the Sabres at KeyBank Center as the Flyers welcomed back forwards Scott Laughton, Oskar Lindblom and Jake Voracek – plus defenseman Justin Braun – from pandemic quarantine.
All four were instrumental in a 3-0 win, moving the Flyers within three points of the East Division lead with three games in hand.
Laughton scored a put-the-game-away goal late in the second period, with assists from Lindblom and Voracek. In addition, Laughton won nine of 12 faceoffs.
Braun was efficient in helping the Flyers’ NHL 30th-ranked penalty kill keep the Sabres’ No. 1-ranked power play off the scoreboard.
On top of that, goalie Brian Elliott recorded his second shutout of the Sabres this season (by identical scores) and raised his career record against Buffalo to 15-2-2.
The two teams meet again on Sunday in KeyBank at 3 p.m.
Sean Couturier and Shayne Gostisbehere also scored for the Flyers, who were missing only Travis Konecny (COVID protocol). It is hoped Konecny can be back in time for a three-game set at Pittsburgh this week.
Vigneault acknowledged the return of his four players meant a great deal to this win. They had been out of action for a whopping 17 days and only returned to practice on Friday.
“You know, I look at my ‘COVID line’ and I look at Justin Braun coming in with obviously not a lot of work prior to today,’’ Vigneault said during a media Zoom call. “I thought they played well. Today was also a game that permitted me to play four lines and six ‘D’ so you could spread out the ice time.’’
Braun was paired with Travis Sanheim as Phil Myers went to the bench. The veteran backliner has competed in the game so long not a play comes along he hasn’t seen before.
“There’s no doubt how pleased I was how ‘Brauner’ played,’’ Vigneault said. “Guys were kidding around before the game (saying) ‘unleash the Brauner.’ And he did play well.
“Defensively, he always finds a way to put something in front of an opponent. . .his body, his arm. He does kill a lot of plays. He helped us five-on-five and penalty kill also.’’
Laughton said his early battle with COVID was difficult but after a couple days the symptoms wore off and it was just a matter of getting ready for his return.
His goal with 1:06 to play off a nifty cross-ice pass from Lindblom, gave the Flyers a comfortable lead going into the third period.
“I was almost a little bit nervous before the game,’’ Laughton said. “It was 17 days I was in my room, a long time away from the guys. Just to be back in the room, it helps your mindset.
“It gives you a boost of energy. It’s nice to contribute. Oskar made a great play. It’s nice to get back.’’
>Lindblom amazingly sharp first game back
Lindblom, who spent half of 2020 battling Ewing’s sarcoma, looked remarkably in stride for this game.
How tough was it coming back from his own bout with COVID?
“I think I felt pretty good (today) actually,’’ he said. “It was a little tough to get back but I think I played a solid game.’’
Lindblom said the battle with Ewing’s prepared him for this latest crisis.
“I’m used to being in my apartment for a long time,’’ he said. “So that wasn’t a problem. But it’s always tough to see the guys playing without you.’’
Was he surprised by how well the Laughton line played?
“I think our line played good,’’ he said. “We came in with good energy. We had a good start and just kept going from there.’’
>Giroux moves into second on Flyers’ games-played list
Captain Claude Giroux played in his 904th NHL game, moving past Bill Barber into second place on the Flyers’ list. The only one above Giroux is Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke (1,144).
Lindblom said Giroux is as valuable as ever to the Flyers.
“I think the biggest thing is he brings a calm to the team,’’ Lindblom said. “When he’s out there, he’s always going to do the right thing, he’s always going to help the team.’’
>Why double-‘D’ on second power-play unit?
Vigneault has been using two defensemen (Gostisbehere, Erik Gustafsson) on the points rather than the traditional one for the second power-play unit.
How did that come about?
“I think both those guys have the capability of getting their shots to the net,’’ Vigneault explained. “One of the things we’ve been talking about is the willingness to get more pucks to the net. I think they both do that.’’
Gostisbehere, who has 12 shots on goal in his last two games, scored a power-play goal off an assist from Gustafsson in the Ranger game.
“I think maybe we’re putting a pressure on those guys to get more pucks through to create more scrambles in front of the net,’’ Vigneault said. “Today I thought they did a good job for us.’’
The Flyers registered a season-high 39 shots for a second straight game.
>Elliott clearly has Buffalo’s number
Elliott ran up most of his wins against the Sabres while playing for Ottawa early in his career. The cast has changed several times since but the hits just keep on coming,
“I have a good feeling when I come in this rink,’’ said Elliott, now 5-1-0, 2.03 goals-against average this season. “I wanted to keep that going. The guys played a great game in front of me.’’
Carter Hart will start Sunday’s game.