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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Flyers, Blue Jackets and Senators

The Canes limp into the New Year with a quartet of games to open 2019.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Flyers

Monday, 6:00 p.m. at PNC Arena; Thursday, 7:00 p.m. at Wells Fargo Center

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

In a matchup of two Metropolitan Division teams whose playoff hopes are quickly slipping away, the Philadelphia Flyers will ring in the New Year at PNC Arena on Monday night against the Hurricanes. The Canes return the favor on Thursday back in Philadelphia as the two Metro rivals begin their season series in earnest. With each team lagging behind the final playoff spot by 10 points, both will need a serious roll, and soon, to even consider themselves in contention.

The Flyers’ early season struggles represented the end of the line for general manager Ron Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol, who were each fired earlier in December. Since Hakstol was replaced with Scott Gordon, the Flyers have turned out a 3-2-1 record as they look to turn around a season that had legitimate expectations at the outset.

The Flyers continue to be led by their captain and offensive superstar, Claude Giroux. The 31-year-old has posted a solid campaign with 44 points in 37 contests. Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier have been the backbone of the Flyers’ offense that has struggled to score at the same pace as last season, despite their solid contributions. A lack of scoring depth has dogged the Flyers, as Wayne Simmonds (16 points) and Shayne Gostisbehere (16 points) have struggled offensively despite being healthy all season. If the Flyers are going to turn around their season, extending their scoring beyond the top line is a must in order to dig out of their current hole.

In net, the Flyers are still missing Brian Elliott, who is due to return from a groin injury sometime in January. In his stead, the Flyers have used a total of five additional netminders, struggling to a collective .885 save percentage on the season. The return of Elliott will be the most important return the Flyers may see in the second half of the season, as the Flyers have seen the third fewest shots to date, but have lagged to 28th in goals against.

Both teams are in need of a serious winning streak, and fast, if they are going to get back into the playoff battle, and it will start with a head-to-head matchup with their division rivals.

What to Watch For

  • Petr Mrazek is expected in net against his former mates. But with a four-game week, expect Curtis McElhinney to make his way into the lineup at some point as well.
  • The Flyers will be on a back-to-back during the second matchup, as they are squeezing a matchup with the Nashville Predators in before reacquainting themselves with the Canes on Thursday.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Friday, 7:30 p.m at PNC Arena

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at New York Rangers Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Despite losing their most recent contest, the Columbus Blue Jackets have put together a solid 22-13-3 first half as they have pushed to second place in the Metro Division. Concerns about the contract status of Sergei Bobrovsky have profided some drama, but the Blue Jackets have forged a solid season built on a solid roster from front to back. They continue to be led offensively by Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson, each who are on a more than a point-per-game pace.

The biggest story offensively has been the emergence of Pierre-Luc Dubois. The 20-year-old has posted 32 points in his second season, including 14 goals. Adding that additional dynamic playmaker has helped give the Blue Jackets’ attack the scoring depth needed to have well-balanced and tough lines across the board. Each grouping has a solid mix of offensive punch as well as the disciplined defensive mindset that John Tortorella demands.

In order for the Hurricanes to have an opportunity against the Blue Jackets in what will be the second game of a back-to-back, the Canes must find a way to score on Bobrovsky. Carolina has consistently struggled generating chances against the Blue Jackets in the past, and their body of work thus far this season would not suggest they are any better suited to do so currently. Nevertheless, continuing to press for an offensive breakthrough is the only option as the Canes must scrap together whatever offense they can find.

What to Watch For

  • With Friday serving as the first of a back-to-back for the Blue Jackets, is it possible Bobrovsky will be held out to remain fresh for the Florida Panthers on Saturday?
  • Jackets captain Nick Foligno missed Monday’s matchup with the Ottawa Senators due to a personal matter. It is unclear if this will keep him out for any extended period.

Ottawa Senators

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. at Canadian Tire Centre

NHL: Washington Capitals at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

In what was envisioned as a complete rebuilding season following the trade of Erik Karlsson during the offseason, the Ottawa Senators have struggled as expected, but have avoided total embarrassment to this point by posting a competitive 15-20-4. The emergence of rookie Brady Tkachuk at 19-years-old has been one of the team’s most exciting developments, as well as the offensive breakout from defenseman Thomas Chabot, who has posted a robust 38 points in 38 games to date.

Offensively, the Senators have proven to be a very dangerous roster, posting the 12th most goals in the league, with performances from Chabot, Tkachuk, Matt Duchene, and Mark Stone all helping to create a dynamic attack.

The problems for the Senators have been squarely focused on the other end of the ice. Currently dead last in goals against (153 total), the Sens have struggled mightily defensively in front of Craig Anderson when he has been healthy, and have struggled to replace him competently when he has not been. The next step of the Ottawa rebuild will clearly have a focus on the blueline and the line of succession in net as the 37-year-old Anderson edges toward the end of his playing career.

The bottom line for Carolina is that this week presents an opportunity with three games against teams even with or below them in the standings. Although they have shown few signs of the brand of hockey needed to rip off a winning streak, this week would seem to be a logical starting point if that indeed is in the cards.

What to Watch for

  • For many, Sunday will represent the Canes’ first look at Brady Tkachuk. Son of Keith and brother to Matthew, Brady has shown flashes of offensive brilliance and a tough streak that should serve him well in the NHL for years to come.
  • Can Carolina break through offensively against the worst defensive team in the league? The depth of the offensive woes should become even clearer based on how Sunday’s matinee goes.