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Scott Laughton couldn’t breathe.

Not when I was talking to him in the locker room. He was OK by that point – sitting there, waiting his turn for the onslaught of cameras and questions coming from his scheduled media scrum following his two-goal performance in the Flyers 4-2 victory over Winnipeg on Saturday.

No, it wasn’t then. But that was when he was sharing his story.

You see, Laughton was having a whale of a game. Two goals. He almost scored a third on a mini breakaway that was stopped by Conor Hellebuyck, and eventually missed a chance at his first career hat trick when his shot on an empty net was deflected ever-so-slightly, and went wide.

But that’s not what the questions were going to be about – at least not at first.

No. Everyone was going to ask about this:

I knew the response on camera would be different than privately, so I asked him if he was OK.

“Luckily,” he said.

That’s when I pointed out that someone had tweeted me this:

Laughton chuckled at first and then said, “I thought I did – I couldn’t breathe.”

He elaborated that once he was able to catch his breath, which took a couple of minutes on the end of the bench, he made it down the tunnel to go see the team doctors and make sure everything was still in working order. (Hey, don’t laugh. Do you remember Patrick Thoresen?)

Laughton, fortunately was able to shake it off and come back and finish the game strong. He never was able to get that hat trick – even though he said linemate Michael Raffl told him he would try to set him up for it, if given the opportunity with the goalie pulled.

But just the fact that he came back from that blow speaks volumes.

No, not just because it’s that macho “hockey player mentality,” although, to be honest, there’s a little of that too, and Laughton will wear that proudly.

But even more than that – this entire team’s mentality has changed.

They won’t admit it. They won’t even discuss it. Coach Alain Vigneault seems to have put a gag order on it at this point. He’s got his finger on the pulse of his team and has them moving in the right direction at just the right pace and tempo.

But the fact of the matter is things have changed for the Flyers. Dramatically so. In the span of a week, no less.

Think about it, last Sunday the Flyers came off a slightly disappointing three-game road trip, dropping two of three games and were clinging to the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

One week and three wins later, the Flyers are now as close to the Metropolitan Division lead as they are to being on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

Thanks to surprising losses by both Pittsburgh (at home to Buffalo) and Washington (in New Jersey) the Flyers (35-20-7,  77 points) moved just three points out of first place in the division. Now, they are also just three points ahead of Columbus, who if the playoffs started today, wouldn’t be a part of the Eastern Conference tournament, so things remain tenuous – but they are tenuous for everyone.

With the exception of Boston and Tampa, every other Eastern Conference team that is competing for a playoff spot is within six points of being in or out of the race with 20 games to go.

That’s nuts.

But, the Flyers are the only team that at the moment is clearly trending upward. (O.K., maybe the New York Rangers are too, but they are trying to come from way back in the pack just to get into the dance and are still four points out of a playoff spot).

Everyone else is either treading water or slowly sinking in the standings.

Here’s everyone chasing a playoff berth not named Boston and Tampa thus far in February:

  • New York Rangers 9-3-0 (18 points)
  • FLYERS 8-3-0 (16 points)
  • Carolina 6-3-1 (13 points)
  • Columbus 3-3-6 (12 points)
  • Pittsburgh 5-3-1 (11 points)
  • New York Islanders 5-5-1 (11 points)
  • Toronto 5-6-1 (11 points)
  • Florida 4-8-1 (9 points)
  • Washington 2-6-1 (5 points)

The fact that in the span of three weeks the Flyers have made up five points on the Penguins and a whopping 11 points on Washington – a team no one would ever have predicted them catching at the start of the month, is pretty incredible.

And now, while the goal remains the same – get into the playoffs – the target has definitely changed.

And it changed before Laughton took one to the jewels. It changed before he scored either of his first period goals. It changed before the Action News theme ever played in warm ups.

No, it changed when Vigneault realized that this group, this team would buy into his system and his style, and all pull on the same rope together.

That’s back when he started making playoff guarantees – which was in mid-January. And the plan has moved forward methodically since.

It just seems like it exploded forward on us this week with the team winning three straight games and suddenly getting to within striking distance of the Division leaders.

Maybe that’s when we started to take notice – when we started to believe. But, the reality is, it goes back many more games than this.

And it’s been the Flyers mindset for awhile. That’s why Laughton wanted to get right back on the ice mere minutes after taking a shot no man or boy ever wants to take. That’s why the Flyers are throwing themselves in front of shots more now than at any other point this season.

They are willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the team – and in the process they are hunting down not just a playoff spot, but maybe even a division crown and have plans for a lengthy bit of hockey in the Spring.

Not that anyone is allowed to talk about it. Even Vigneault won’t take the bait, wrapping up his press conference Saturday like this:

Q: You’re only three points out of first place now, have your goals changed beyond just making the playoffs?

“My goal, when I leave this stage, is not to have a martini, but to tell my guys to focus on San Jose the next game,” Vigneault said.

And then as he disappeared behind the curtain he yelled back into the room, “But I think I’ll still have that martini.”

Life is good for Vigneault and his Flyers right now. They believe in themselves and while they’ll keep an eye on the objects in the rear view mirror that are closer than they appear, there is a destination ahead, and they’re planning on getting there, even if it means taking a shot to the groin or two along the way.

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