DBJ+ Before the CBJ puck drops: The Philadelphia two-fer

GAMES 35 & 36

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

15-15-4  (5-3-2 in last 10 games)

 

CURRENT NHL RANKINGS (as of 12/19/13)

 

PHI
RANK

PHI
GOALS/GAME

CBJ
RANK

CBJ
GOALS/GAME

GOALS FOR

23

2.35

 16

2.53

GOALS AGAINST

14

 2.65

 19

 2.76

 

(BLOG NOTE: As the Flyers and Blue Jackets are playing back-to-back games, I’m writing this as an overview of both games. Should something dramatic happen in the course of the first game to warrant an addendum to this preview, I’ll be sure to write about it.)

ABOUT TONIGHT’S OPPONENT:

Amazingly, the Columbus Blue Jackets have made it through almost half of a season without playing their new divisional rival, the Philadelphia Flyers. But they’re on for tonight, and for Saturday, and for a couple other times this season…so let’s dive in.

I can’t think about the Flyers and not recall my freshman year college roommate, who camped out at his dorm room desk for the entire year in a Flyers jersey while regaling our quad with stories of The Great Ron Hextall (former Flyers goalie, in case you didn’t know) when not burying his head in books. He’s now a cardiologist. I’m not. Maybe I shouldn’t have blown his hockey wisdom off. But I digress.

The CBJ history with Philadelphia is deliciously intertwined. Forward R. J. Umberger and Team Ambassador and Broadcast Associate Jody Shelley once played in Philly. Columbus’ former players Jake Voracek and Steve Mason now play there. The teams also swapped a few draft picks along the way, with the most notable being Columbus’ number one becoming the Flyers’ Sean Couturier and the Flyers’ number one becoming Columbus prospect Marco Dano. I daresay that only the Columbus-New York Rangers relationship runs deeper on the personnel side.

The Flyers got off to a terrible start to the season, going 4-10-1 out of the gate and seeing their coach, Peter Laviolette, marched out of town on October 7th. Laviolette coached a scant three games before being replaced by former assistant Craig Berube. While it took a while for Berube to right the ship, the Flyers pulled themselves out of the NHL sub-basement and now sit in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, two points ahead of the seventh-place Blue Jackets (Yes, it’s that tight.).

Expectations in Philadelphia always are sky-high, and the team spends like it. Philly was the winner of the Jaromir Jagr free agency derby when he returned from the Russian KHL, and Jagr helped the young stars like forwards Claude Giroux and especially Voracek elevate their games. Jagr wasn’t re-signed, however, and the Flyers backfilled that by bringing in free agent Vinny Lecavalier.

As for Columbus, this may be a .500 team that they’re facing tonight…but they’re not playing like one. Not even close. Plus, the stats don’t do the current state of the Flyers justice. You have to balance their 4-10-1 start against their 15-15-4 record. That means that once things started clicking in early November, Philadelphia has been an impressive 11-5-3. I daresay any team in the NHL would enjoy that type of success.

The Flyers’ current top scorers are:

– Giroux (7 goals, 19 assists, 26 points)

– Voracek (8 G, 11 A, 19 pts)

– Forward Brayden Schenn (7 G, 12 A, 19 pts)

– Forward Matt Read (10 G, 7 A, 17 pts)

– Forward Wayne Simmonds (6 G, 10 A, 16 pts)

– Couturier (6 G, 10 A, 16 pts)

In goal, Hextall is long gone (actually, he’s the Flyers’ assistant general manager) but former Blue Jacket netminder arguably is the team’s most valuable player thus far, going 12-9-4 in 29 starts with a .924 save percentage. Backup Ray Emery, when not slugging goalies who don’t want to fight him, is 3-6-0 in 9 starts with a .891 save percentage. Mason will get the start against Columbus on Thursday night, and speculation is that Emery will start on Saturday.

THE REAL IMPORTANT STUFF TO KNOW

This home and home series (Thursday and Saturday) marks the beginning of five straight games in the Metropolitan Division for Columbus. We’ll see two against Philly, then Carolina, New Jersey and Pittsburgh. To say that this stretch is important — with only 3 standings points separating the six teams occupying third through seventh place — to the Blue Jackets’ playoff hopes could be an understatement. Four out of the five games are against teams in that cluster competing for the third (and likely final) Metro Division playoff spot. As the team at the bottom of this pack, the CBJ need to win as many games as possible…and in regulation…to accumulate points and deny their divisional rivals points at the same time.

WHAT I’LL BE WATCHING FOR

From this week’s Winnipeg preview:

"This appears to be one for the last games of the "depleted" Blue Jackets roster. Word is filtering out of Nationwide Arena that James Wisniewski and Marian Gaborik will be back later this week, and Nathan Horton will make his Blue Jackets debut (finally!) after Christmas."

…

"So tonight could be seen as a bit of a curtain call for The Squad That Dug Themselves Out Of Their Hole. I’d love to be there tonight and give them all the cheering that I can muster, for this group surely deserves it."

Word out of the Blue Jackets locker room is that both Gaborik and Wisniewski could be back as soon as Saturday, meaning that the team will get another shot at a curtain call for the Columbus M*A*S*H Jackets.Considering the less-than-stellar game that the team had against the Jets, I’m hoping that the added incentive of grabbing two points at the expense of a divisional rival motivates the squad to turn it on tonight.

The goaltenders will be interesting to watch tonight, but for very different reasons. For Columbus, Curtis McElhinney will return from injury. That always is an adventure, for we will never know how much rust has shaken off until the pucks start flying in real time. Here’s hoping that McElhinney bounces back strong.

On the flip side, Steve Mason….oh man, where to begin? I still remember the Steve Mason of 2009 that grabbed 10 shutouts and helped will the Blue Jackets to their only playoff appearance despite no real goalie coach and a case of mono.That Calder trophy-winning season made so many CBJ fans think that the goaltending issue was solved for the foreseeable future. Of course, that wasn’t the case (you name the reason why, and you’ll probably be at least partially correct) and here we are.

I have a soft spot for Mason because of 2009 and always felt that his was a classic case of needing a change of scenery to get his mojo back. So guess what happened? He got a change of scenery — perhaps to the Black Hole of Goalie Suffering, but a change nonetheless — and found himself. It was never about the physical nature of the game for Mason; it was always between the ears. A fresh start let him shake off the negative experiences from Columbus and take off once again.

Yes, I’ll be rooting for the Blue Jackets tonight. I always do. But I’ll also be rooting for Steve Mason tonight. (And if he plays on Saturday, something I wouldn’t recommend for the sake of his mental health, I’ll root for him then, too.)

YOUR FOX SPORTS OHIO BROADCAST INFORMATION

The puck drops at 7PM for both games (Thursday at Philadelphia, Saturday in Columbus), which means…

– "Blue Jackets Live" with Brian Giesenschlag and Dan Kamal at 6:30PM

– The Flyers and the Blue Jackets drop the puck at 7PM with Jeff Rimer and Bill Davidge in the booth.

– "Blue Jackets Live Postgame" with Brian and Dan starts immediately following.And thus begins a big, big, big stretch of games for Columbus if our favorite team is serious about its playoff aspirations this season. Go Jackets!