In talking to players on the Philadelphia Flyers, one of the biggest things they're impressed by with coach Peter Laviolette is his ability to push the right buttons at just the right time with his team.
"Peter seems to know when to pull the right strings, as far as who's playing," center Danny Briere told NHL.com. "Just calling timeout, game plans, stuff like that. And that's something you can't teach. He has that in him. He's done a tremendous job in that regard."
One of those players he's done a seemingly solid job with is forward Nikolay Zherdev. Signed over the summer to play as a top-six forward in place of the traded Simon Gagne, Zherdev played just 58 games in the regular season despite being healthy enough to play all 82. That means 24 games as a healthy scratch for a player who was the fourth pick of the 2003 Entry Draft, had three 20-goal seasons in his first five in the NHL, and scored 16 in limited time this season.
He was scratched the first two games of the Flyers' Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Buffalo Sabres, and only entered the lineup for Game 3 due to an upper-body injury to Andreas Nodl.
In his return, however, Zherdev scored the game-winning goal in the Flyers' 4-2 victory Monday. It was the sixth time he's returned from a benching, and the fourth time he's had at least a point in his first game back.
It also was his first Stanley Cup Playoff game.
"Right now, I just focus on the playoffs and play hard," Zherdev told reporters following Monday's game. "First goal, game-winning goal -- I'm happy, the team won."
On his goal, Zherdev slipped behind the Buffalo defense and skated to the right post, where Mike Richards found him for an easy tap-in.
"Z is a player who stepped up the most when we need him throughout the season," Richards told reporters Monday. "He stepped up in situations that have been tough. He always seems to find the net when he gets back in the lineup. You could see the jump he had tonight."
That jump comes from what Laviolette views as improved work ethic. The Flyers waived Zherdev on Feb. 23, and he went unclaimed. Whether that sparked something in Zherdev is unknown, but since then Laviolette has liked what he's seen.
"Since that time, what's been most impressive to me is his attitude," Laviolette said Monday. "He's worked really hard, and he's committed just like everybody else. He got an opportunity tonight and scored a big goal for us."
"There's always two different roads you can go down at that point," Laviolette said, referring to the waiver situation. "You can go south and maybe never get a player back, or you can do what you have to do, and he's worked really hard with the coaches and very hard with (trainer) Jimmy McCrossin to keep himself in shape."
Zherdev got into the lineup for the final five games of the regular season, scoring a goal and adding 2 assists. That strong play carried over to Game 3 on Monday.
Briere can emphasize with what Zherdev has gone through. He was waived twice by the Phoenix Coyotes earlier in his career before eventually re-making his career when he was traded to the Sabres and developed into an All-Star.
"That certainly was a wake-up call for me," Briere said. "All of a sudden, you realize nobody wants you. Before that, you're kind of blaming it on the coaching staff that you're not playing me; it's everybody else's fault, and then when you clear waivers and realize nobody wants you, you start to realize that the problem is yourself.
"To his credit, he went back and has been working hard, off the ice as well. He's been … staying in shape and waiting for his chance. I think everyone is happy for him to score a big goal like that."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK