There was no Ivan Provorov cool to the first one, no pretending he had been there before, even though in a large sense Travis Sanheim has been there before.
No, when that first NHL goal finally found its way past an NHL goaltender in the Flyers’ 2-1 victory over Buffalo Thursday night, tying a game his team seemed intent at that point to fritter away, Sanheim’s joy and relief washed so quickly over his face that he covered it quickly with a glove.
“Just ‘cause I always get really smiley when I score a goal,” he said. “And that was the first goal, so I was like …”
Ecstatic? Maybe even a tad embarrassed that it had taken 28 games to achieve? Sanheim’s three preseason goals not only solidified his chance to grab one of the open defensive roster spots this fall, it suggested his offensive impact would come quick and be plentiful.
A quick study of the 21-year-old defenseman’s history would have implied otherwise.
“You can predict I’m going to score my first goal somewhere around Christmas,” he said, and he was kidding by only a few weeks.
During his first season in juniors with the Calgary Hitmen, it came within days of the holiday. Last season, his first as a professional, Sanheim scored his first goal for the Phantoms in a Dec. 9 game against Rochester — his 24th professional game.
“All of a sudden, he became a plus player,” recalled Scott Gordon, the Phantoms’ coach. “And then the last two months, all of a sudden he started piling up points …”
A little poetic license there: Sanheim was plus-6 and had nine assists when he scored his first goal for the Phantoms last season. Overall, he had 10 goals and 27 assists and finished plus-7 for the season. Once he scored that first goal, Sanheim had 27 points over his final 53 games with the Phantoms.
He finished so strong during that 2013-14 season in Calgary that the Flyers surprised some by selecting him with their first-round pick, 17th overall.
“That development. … Hexy talks about that all the time. It’s about playing,” said Gordon. “Those are the lessons that are invaluable, that they get the opportunity to learn down here. Not just from making the mistake, but also from having the conversation identifying that there are different mindsets at different points in a game. Those are things you have to get.”
It has been that way at each level, Sanheim said — balancing risk with rewards, being aware of who is where.
Just minutes before his goal he made the kind of toxic positional mistake that is so common in the learning curve of a young defenseman. He failed to cover the front of the net as Flyers goaltender Brian Elliott played the puck from behind. A turnover, a pass to Buffalo’s Ryan O’Reilly in front, and the Sabres were gifted a 1-0 lead.
Two minutes later, another communications mixup between Elliott and the young defenseman nearly resulted in a second freebie. Only Nolan Patrick’s alert — and lucky — save in front rescued the Flyers from a two-goal hole.
“Minus the goal,” said Sanheim, “that might have been my worst period of the season.”
But there was that goal, a few minutes later. Sanheim crept into the slot from the blue line and fired a quick wrist shot past Buffalo goaltender Robin Lehner for his fifth point this season.
The gaffe assured Sanheim would finish the game with the same minus-8 with which he entered it. The difference — the hope, anyway — is that the goal settles him down a bit, and results in the more assured and confident version of him that finished so well last year. The version that convinced general manager Ron Hextall he was ready for this jump.
Sanheim’s locker is next to Shayne Gostisbehere, who had his own troubles last year.
“I talk to him daily,” said Sanheim. “Basically he says, ‘Stick with it, it’s coming.'”
Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said “there is no number you can put on” the progress Sanheim is making.
“The baseline of all of this is he is a player that helps our team,” Hakstol continued. “Through all of that, that is the balance of how critical every single point is in combination with the development of a young player. And along the way have an honest evaluation and try to continually improve little areas of your game, and that’s really what it is. It’s finding details that you can improve on a daily basis, whether it’s mentally, through video, or through practice and gain experience.”
Sanheim said he’s working on “little areas defensively” that he can turn into ways to join attacks.
“The better I am defensively, it turns out the better I am offensively,” he said. “It’s easier to sit back and say that I could have done this or could have done that. But going forward, I just have to try to limit those mistakes and play a harder game.”