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Utility Playing

by Brian Smith | / Philadelphia Flyers

It seems like a long time ago that Sam Gagner was an Arizona Coyote, and it pretty much is; at this point, with the season heading towards its final six weeks, he’s spent almost as much time as a Flyer as he did in the desert, where he played just the one season in 2014-15. When the scheduling machine was done jumbling last summer, it fell such that the Flyers and Coyotes had both their meetings in the final seven weeks of the season. Philadelphia will head to Glendale on March 26.

As a result, Gagner’s first game against his old club isn’t as highly anticipated as it might have been had his stay there been longer, or if the game had come earlier in the season.

“It should be fun,” Gagner said. “It was just the one year I was there, but obviously I still have some friends on that team. I think the main thing for us is we’re in a playoff race right now and we’re focusing on that. Every game’s really important. It doesn’t really matter who you play – you have to find a way to win the game.”

Gagner said he has a little firsthand knowledge of the upcoming opponent, but the team looks pretty different from the one he played on.

“They had a lot of change in the summer, brought in a lot of new pieces,” Gagner said. “They’re playing with a lot of pace, they have Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the back end – he’s a horse that touches a lot of areas of the game – and they have a lot of speed up front. They play a pretty hard game, and it’s on us to kind of control the intensity of the game and come out firing.”

Gagner’s season has been a bit frustrating – he didn’t play in the first two games but broke into the lineup for the third, and was in it regularly from that point until he sustained an upper-body injury in late November. When he was healthy again, the Flyers were on a roll, and he had difficulty getting back into the lineup. He then spent three weeks with the Phantoms in the AHL for salary cap reasons, but was brought back to the Flyers after the January trade of Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn to Los Angeles cleared some cap space.

In his first 10 games upon returning from the minors, Gagner was averaging just over 13 minutes of ice time a game. But his role and minutes have increased markedly over the past three contests as he’s landed on a line with Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds – he’s averaging over 16 minutes and the line has combined for three goals and four assists, with two of the goals coming from Gagner. One of them was the first goal in Thursday’s game, for which he was named the game’s second star.

“I’m getting an opportunity to play some bigger minutes,” he said. “I’m feeling more and more comfortable. I’m well suited to playing in that scoring role. My linemates have been great. I’ve gotten a chance to develop some chemistry with Schenner and Simmer. I feel like the last few games especially we’ve created a lot of chances and helped our team win a couple games, so it’s been good.”

Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol feels Gagner’s been playing well in his current slot.

“He’s contributed,” Hakstol said. “He’s done a good job in some areas. He’s playing on his off side, and that’s probably not the most comfortable spot. Like everyone else in the lineup, he’s working hard and doing what he can to contribute to our team.”

The next few days will be another point in Gagner’s season where other circumstances will have a bearing on his role. Giroux practiced on Friday and could return soon, and there’s also the little matter of Monday’s trade deadline that may or may not change the lineup. But as he’s done for most of the last two seasons, Gagner is simply approaching the situation by controlling what he can control.

“It’s not up to me,” he said. “I feel like in the opportunity I got the last little while, I’ve stepped up to the plate and played well. But at the same time, you realize that changes are going to be made with guys coming back in the lineup. I think wherever I am, I’ve just got to do my best to help the team win hockey games.”

Flyers captain Claude Giroux skated with the team for the first time since sustaining an upper-body injury in last Friday’s game in Montreal. The practice only lasted about 20 minutes, but Hakstol said Giroux looked good in the time he was out there. After practice, Giroux didn’t get into specifics on how he was feeling, but Hakstol reiterated the Flyers can adapt without him for as long as needed.

“Players are in and out of the lineup with injuries all the time,” Hakstol said. “Obviously he’s a key guy for us and plays in a lot of situations, but so does Coots, so does Del Zotto, as you go through the list of injuries that we’ve gone through. That’s part of the game. We want to have him back as soon as possible, but we want to have him back when he’s ready to go.”

In addition to figuring out the skater lineup, Hakstol will have to make a decision on whether to ride the hot hand of Michal Neuvirth or to put Steve Mason back in. The hockey world was still buzzing Friday over Neuvirth’s last-second desperation save on Charlie Coyle that prevented Thursday’s game from going to overtime. As of 1:30 Friday afternoon, the NHL’s video clip of the save on its Facebook page had been viewed more than 2.4 million times, and the ticker was still climbing.

“It’s part of the body of work,” Hakstol said of whether that save would be part of his consideration over who to start Saturday. “There’s no question. Neuvy’s body of work last night was good; it was solid. His first save of the game is just as important as the last save; it’s just a different time of the game. If you remember the quick 3-on-2 play that came back, I think the first puck that he saw was a grade-A chance from around the hash marks. That helped us get off to a good start just as much as closing out the game.”

Saturday’s game is a 1:00 puck drop on Comcast SportsNet and 97.5 The Fanatic.

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