PHILADELPHIA — Chris Butler played only 49 regular-season games, at one point sitting 17-of-18 during one miserable winter stretch.
Marc-Andre Gragnani spent most of the season dazzling in the AHL, finally earning a late recall and sticking in March. Mike Weber was a healthy scratch 20 of the first 22 games this year.
All three Buffalo Sabres defenseman made their NHL playoff debuts Thursday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal at the Wells Fargo Center.
All three played pivotal roles in the tight 1-0 triumph over the Flyers, earning their coach’s praise afterward.
“Good, great and excellent, or maybe great, real good and excellent,” Lindy Ruff called them. “They were very good.”
Butler, 24, was one of the best skaters on the ice, playing a game-high 26:04. He closed out the anxious final seconds with partner Tyler Myers. His block earlier in the period thwarted a Flyers scoring chance.
The American, a scratch all six playoff games last season, has endured an arduous road back. After turning heads as rookie in 2008-09, he regressed for more than a year. By January, he had become the sparest of parts.
“It was a tough time,” Butler said. “I was working through for about a month when I didn’t see any ice time. I give a lot of credit to guys like (assistant coaches) James Patrick and Kevyn Adams, who were real helpful to me. (Patrick) told me he went through the same thing. If you look at the career he had, it can happen to anybody.
“It’s kind of the old, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’” he said. “I tried to learn a lot of little things during that time. It would’ve been easy to kind of go through the motions.”
Meanwhile, Gragnani, 24, skated 19:28, mostly beside Steve Montador. Patrick Kaleta buried Gragnani’s point blast for the game’s only goal early in the third period.
When a struggling Montador sat late, Ruff paired Gragnani with Weber. The new duo also played in the final minute. Weber, 23, skated 20:34 overall.
“They’re not going to put someone on the ice with a minute left that they don’t have confidence in,” Gragnani said. “Obviously, that’s a big boost for my confidence.”
Counting the postseason, Gragnani has one goal and three assists this year.
His first helper created the only score in win over the New York Rangers. He scored his first goal in overtime in Carolina four days later.
“I haven’t been here long enough to get a reputation yet,” Gragnani said.
(Bill Hoppe, a Times Herald sports writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)