Florida Panthers at Calgary Flames game preview



Johnny Gaudreau’s electrifying play has sparked the Calgary Flames and drawn attention from around the league.

The Florida Panthers have enjoyed a similar experience due to their own exceptional rookie, Aaron Ekblad.

Having proven their ability to the league, the two elite rookies can prove it against each other Friday night when the Panthers head to Calgary for their final meeting this season.

Gaudreau scored in Calgary’s previous meeting with the Panthers – a 6-4 victory on Nov. 8 – and ranks second among rookies with 31 points, trailing only Nashville’s Filip Forsberg.

Ekblad also found the scoresheet in that matchup, notching two assists for the first multi-point game of his career. That production has continued. Ekblad has tallied an assist in his last three games and his 23 points rank first among rookie defensemen, leading second place by 10.

The Flames (21-17-3) relied on Jonas Hiller in that win and will again look to the veteran Friday after Calgary was bit by injury bug in a 3-2 loss to Detroit on Wednesday. Backup goaltender Karri Ramo suffered an upper-body injury and rookie center Josh Jooris aggravated a recurring upper-body injury.

The ailments come just as Calgary had returned several key players from injury, most notably Mikael Backlund, whose performance against the Red Wings stands as one of the few positives in the loss. After dealing with an abdominal injury for most of this season, Backlund had a goal and an assist in his first game since Oct. 28.

"Backs is probably one of the most underrated two-way players in the league," coach Bob Hartley said. "(Wednesday), that was exactly the Mikael Backlund that we know, and that’s exactly the Mikael Backlund that we need."

Florida Panthers on FOX Sports Florida

The loss was Calgary’s second in a row after a four-game win streak and kept it two points outside of the playoff picture at the halfway point in the season.

Florida (18-11-9) also finds itself as the ninth seed after 3-1 win Thursday at Vancouver behind a 32-save performance from Roberto Luongo.

The 35-year-old Luongo has yet to play both ends of a back-to-back this season, and could cede the net Friday to backup Al Montoya. Montoya took the loss in Florida’s previous meeting with Calgary, and is 0-4 with a 3.65 goals-against average in his last four games.

Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau continued his best stretch of the season with two goals and an assist. Huberdeau has seven points in six games, but has been held scoreless in two career matchups with the Flames.

"They’re developing into great players, and this is just the beginning for us," Luongo said to Florida’s official site about the team’s young players. "We’re excited for what is ahead of us here."

Jiri Hudler expects to be back for Calgary after he missed Wednesday’s loss following the birth of his first child. Hudler is tied for the team lead with 13 goals and has 23 points in his last 19 games.

Hudler has been particularly strong against the Panthers in his career, posting six points while winning all eight meetings.

Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano has been held pointless in a season-high four consecutive games during an otherwise stellar season. Giordano has 10 goals, 25 assists and tallied a season-high three points in the Flames’ previous matchup with Florida.

The Flames have won their last three matchups with the Panthers and seven of the past 10.