Flyers coach Craig Berube claimed he was undecided on whether he would use hulking Hal Gill or speedy Erik Gustafsson to replace the injured defenseman Nick Grossmann on Sunday, but his practice gave it away.
So did Gill.
Gill, 39, took all the regular repetitions with Mark Streit on Saturday in Voorhees, and the 6-foot-7, 243-pounder will make his 2014 playoff debut Sunday afternoon against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
The best-of-seven series is tied at two games apiece, thanks to the Flyers’ grind-it-out, 2-1 home win Friday.
A veteran of 110 career playoff games, Gill said he was excited to return to the lineup.
“That’s why you play,” said Gill, the team’s locker-room jokester. “Skydivers jump out of planes because they get a rush. I play hockey to play in the payoffs. That’s the high that everyone is looking for.”
Gill, who won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009, was a healthy scratch in 76 of the Flyers’ 82 regular-season games. He played in the final two games, giving strong performances against Pittsburgh and Carolina.
“It felt good to back in the lineup and get competitive, get your timing and space down a little bit,” Gill said. “I think it helped a lot.”
Gill is a stay-at-home defender whose style is similar to Grossmann’s. The Rangers will try to exploit his lack of speed.
Grossmann “was playing really well for us,” said Streit, his defensive partner. “He blocks a ton of shots, plays on the penalty kill, and I’ve been playing with him the whole year.”
Grossmann suffered an apparent knee injury in Game 4 and will not play Sunday, and could miss the rest of the series.
Streit said the transition will be easy because Gill, like Grossmann, is a big, physical defender.
“At the end of the season, I played two games with Hal, and I was pretty impressed with how well he played under the circumstances _ not playing for three or four months,” Streit said. “....He’s humungous, and he has a big reach _ and it’s a small rink He’s experienced and he’s won in the playoffs.”
Streit said Gill “has been around for so long, I think he’ll be up for a challenge.”
Gill, who has six points, no goals and is plus-4 in 110 career playoff games, was philosophical about the situation, saying he would play “with the passion you have when you’re seven years old.”
“I think the more you play in the playoffs, the more you realize it’s a journey; it’s ups and downs _ not just the whole thing, but during the games there can be momentum changes and things that can change a series,” he said. “That’s what I enjoy about it. You play for the moment. You play because that one battle in the corner down in your end, which leads to a breakout, which leads to a goal that changes the game, changes the series. Changes everything.
“I don’t want to sound like an NHL slogan, but one play can change everything.”
Gill will play a conservative game and feed the puck-moving Streit as often as possible.
“When you play with a guy like that, you don’t need real chemistry,” Gill said. “You need to get him the puck and let him do his thing.”
A friendly, outgoing sort, Gill has been a valuable presence in the Flyers’ locker room.
“He’s got that great personality throughout the whole year,” said Streit, whose team ended a nine-game Madison Square Garden losing streak with a 4-2 win last Sunday. “He didn’t play that much, but he’s always in a good mood supporting the guys. It’s just a pleasure to have him around.”
Follow Sam Carchidi on Twitter @BroadStBull.