SEAN COUTURIER began growing his caveman-like orange beard back in early December - well before the Flyers had popped up on the playoff radar.
Since early December, right around the time he put his razor away, the Flyers have gone on a 28-16-7 run to make believers out of most of the Eastern Conference.
Heading into last night's matchup with the Sabres, Couturier thought it was time for a change.
The magic in his "playoff'' beard - since just about every game for the Flyers since December has had playoff implications after their 4-10-1 start - had apparently run dry. His team was 1-4-2 in the previous seven games.
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So Couturier brought out the clippers early yesterday morning and shaved off an inch or two - but didn't go completely baby-faced. He left just enough scruff to get a head start on his older, grizzlier teammates for when the regular season ends next Sunday.
"It was time to move on and try to start a new streak here," Couturier said.
Let the record reflect, then, that the Flyers' new streak started against the last-place Sabres in a game that Scott Hartnell dubbed a "must-win."
Frankly, on a night when the Blue Jackets pasted the Islanders to briefly draw even with the Flyers in the standings for the first time in nearly a month, must-win was far from hyperbole. The Flyers wouldn't deserve to make the playoffs if they couldn't beat the 21-win Sabres in the final week of the season to help seal a berth.
Turns out, that tie with Columbus in the Metropolitan Division lasted but only a few hours.
The Flyers restored order with a methodical, 5-2 blasting of Buffalo to sweep the three-game season series against the Sabres for the second time in three years.
"I think it really helps," coach Craig Berube said of his team's psyche. "Even though we lost games against Boston and St. Louis in shootouts, it still felt like a loss. There weren't any goals scored in St. Louis [last Tuesday], then we lost two in a row. So I thought it was important from the confidence level just to get guys' spirits back up."
The win was the Flyers' 40th of the season - the 28th time in their 46-season history that they've reached that benchmark. With the two points, the Flyers regained their stranglehold on third place in the Metropolitan with four games to play. They also hold the tiebreaker - combined wins and overtime wins - over Columbus.
They have 89 points and trail the second-place Rangers by just two points with one game still in-hand.
For a team with little more than moral victories on its stat sheet over the last week, the Sabres were the perfect appetizer ahead of a juicy week of opponents.
Just about every facet of the Flyers' recently off-kilter game fell back into alignment.
The Flyers' power play got back on track with its second goal of the weekend. Brayden Schenn broke free with two goals after not scoring since March 22. Vinny Lecavalier, back on the fourth line, scored his 19th of the season.
"It's nice to get that first one, especially," Schenn said. "I feel like I've been getting a lot of chances lately - whether they're hitting the post or I'm just not scoring on my opportunities. It is definitely a monkey off my back."
Defenseman Mark Streit picked up three assists. Goaltender Steve Mason posted his first assist since April 27, 2013, though his shutout bid fell short. And one-man wrecking ball Zac Rinaldo netted his second goal of the season before being whistled for three minor penalties and thrown out with a match penalty in the third period.
Even Claude Giroux, who had grown frustrated with the Flyers' lack of offense in recent outings, was back to his old self - making plays all over the ice. He was back to dragging the puck between his legs and setting up teammates for point-blank scoring chances.
Part of all those positives, to be sure, could be chalked up to their brutal opponent - one of the worst NHL teams to be iced in recent memory. Yet, as the Flyers have learned with their grueling schedule over the last month, you can only do your best against the opponent offered. After all, these final games of the season were supposed to be the light at the end of the tunnel.
"You've got to worry about who you're playing, but you've got to worry about yourself mostly," said Matt Read, who scored his 21st goal. "It's about playing a full 60 minutes, finding a way to win hockey games and getting back to that mentality of outworking the opposing team."
Brayden Schenn hit the 20-goal plateau for the first time in his 3-year career. Vinny Lecavalier (19 goals) is knocking on the door to become the seventh Flyer with 20 . . . Interestingly, Schenn began the game on left wing after playing most of the last few months at center . . . Jay Rosehill played his second straight game . . . The Sabres have dressed a staggering 44 players this season . . . Former Flyer Ville Leino remains scoreless after 56 games this season.
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