If first impressions mean anything, Travis Sanheim’s time in Allentown, home of the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms, could benefit the Flyers down the stretch.
It was only one game, but the smooth-skating defenseman seemed more relaxed with the puck, more confident, as he played his first game with the Flyers since Jan. 13 and helped them outlast talented Winnipeg, 2-1, on Saturday afternoon.
Sanheim, 21, was recalled from the Phantoms because of injuries to Robert Hagg and Johnny Oduya. He was paired with Andrew MacDonald on the second unit, and he finished plus-1 in 12 minutes, 44 seconds of ice time.
His gaps were better than in his first stint with the Flyers,and he didn’t try to force anything.
In short, he played as if he belonged.
“After I was sent down, my goal was to get right back up here,” Sanheim said. “It’s unfortunate with the circumstances on how I got here with the injuries, but I’m happy to be here.”
With the Flyers earlier in the season, Sanheim struggled to find his game. He collected five points in 35 games and had a minus-10 rating.
Instead of sulking because of the demotion, Sanheim regained his confidence in Allentown, where he played lots of minutes and was a go-to player. In 18 games, he had 15 points and a plus-14 rating.
“He dug in immediately from day one, from what I’m told,” coach Dave Hakstol said after the Flyers ended a five-game losing streak. “… He looks like a guy who absolutely has his game back.”
“I just need to keep doing the things I was doing down in the American League and play my game,” Sanheim said. “I don’t want to steer away from that.”
Sanheim was part of a defense that limited most of Winnipeg’s 28 shots to the outside.
“I think it’s his best game with us,” captain Claude Giroux said. “He was moving the puck well, made a lot of good plays defensively. I was very impressed by his play.”
MacDonald also was impressed with his new defensive partner.
“Right from the first shift, he was aggressive. Made some really nice stick plays in the neutral zone,” said MacDonald, who scored what turned out to be the winning goal. “Broke up some plays and sent our guys in on some great transition plays. He made that nice stretch pass from behind our net right away, and you could tell he was feeling comfortable and confident.”
Added MacDonald: “That’s a heck of a way to come back in. Not an easy situation — the fact we had lost our last five … but I thought he did a tremendous job.”
MacDonald thinks the stint with the Phantoms made Sanheim more sure of himself.
“You could tell today he was confident making plays, stepping up, having a strong stick, and skating really well,” he said. “It was great to see because we’re going to really need him.”
“He definitely had some swagger today,” right winger Travis Konecny said.
Sanheim, selected 17th overall in the 2014 draft, wasn’t happy to be sent to Lehigh Valley, but he understood the demotion.
In a way, Sanheim said Saturday’s game felt like his NHL debut in Los Angeles on Oct. 5.
“There was definitely a little nerves,” he said with a smile. “I think I was just excited to be back with this group. It just felt so familiar, spending half the year here, and it didn’t take long to adjust.”
Now he has two weeks to show he belongs in the NHL — and in the lineup — when Hagg returns after apparently being injured blocking a third-period shot Thursday in Boston.
“I’ve got a chance here to take advantage of the opportunity,” Sanheim said, “and I’m just going to kind of keep going with it.”