CALGARY, Alberta — The key, for Michael Raffl, was in the bile. Out for more than a month after suffering an injury to his left knee, the Flyers winger measured his gains in rehab last month not from any measure of skill or speed, but rather a chemical reaction.
"I had a chance to really work off the ice,’’ he was saying after the Flyers practiced at the Scotiabank Saddledome Tuesday. "I felt like I was fresh out of training camp after that break. You do two, five, six back-skates with Lappy [assistant coach Ian Laperriere] and you throw up after every one of them, it’s going to get you in shape. The hard work is going to pay off.’’
It has paid off in a climb up the depth chart for the 30-year-old left wing, who was bumped up to a second-line grouping that includes Sean Couturier and Jake Voracek for Wednesday’s game against the red-hot Calgary Flames.
Couturier’s likely return to the lineup after missing the weekend’s games in Buffalo and Winnipeg, the struggles of young front men like Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom, all play into Raffl’s new role and linemates. But it’s mostly about his recent output. He had two assists and was a plus-3 in the Flyers' 6-2 win in Buffalo Saturday and was one of the better Flyers through their quirkily one-sided 7-1 defeat in Winnipeg the following day.
"Move my feet,’’ he said when asked what the key was for him. "Honestly, I try not to change too much. I am the player I am and I’ve been used the last five years like that, up and down the lineup.’’
It was about this time last season, on a similar swing through western Canada, when Raffl rewarded a bump up the lineup and in minutes with an explosion in production. Playing on a second line that included Voracek and Val Filppula, he scored the winning goal in three consecutive games against Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver – precisely the three teams the Flyers will play to finish this five-game road trip.
Raffl had six points over five victories during that stretch, the start of a season-changing momentum swing for a team that was mired in last place.
"That’s a real characteristic of Raffl. … He’s versatile,’’ coach Dave Hakstol said. "And he wants those opportunities. He relishes those opportunities. And one of the reasons he’s able to be successful is that he doesn’t change his game. He stays within what gives him success. He plays straight-line, power hockey, possession hockey. And he makes his linemates better because of that.’’
Continuing to use both Claude Giroux and Couturier as centers "gives us the option of being a little bit deeper up the middle,’’ Hakstol said. It also returns Patrick to a third-line role, providing a little more breathing room for the 20-year-old center to try to work out of his funk.
"He’s at his best when there is a lot of second effort to his game,’’ Hakstol said. "The consistency overall of his game can improve. That comes with work and that comes with confidence.
"The game is all about one-on-ones and little battles in different small areas of the rink, and doing those things with a confidence and a consistent manner that allows you to be successful.’’
South Jersey native Johnny Gaudreau was named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week on Monday after a four-game stretch in which he scored twice and had six assists. He had a seven-game point streak snapped in Sunday’s loss to Edmonton – which also snapped the Flames' five-game winning streak.
"The past month I’ve been getting some good scoring chances,’’ Gaudreau said after the Flames practiced Tuesday. "The last two weeks I’ve been finding the net. The two weeks before that I was getting a lot of looks, just wasn’t finding the net. That’s the way it works sometimes.’’
Gaudreau, who has 12 goals and 27 assists, timed this latest outburst to align with the Flames' annual fathers' trip. Guy Gaudreau returned home before Sunday’s loss to the Oilers – which happened only hours after their beloved Eagles lost in overtime to Dallas.