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At the Rink: Panthers at Flyers

by Adam Kimelman

PHILADELPHIA -- As Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad took the ice at Wells Fargo Center on Thursday, he had a bit of a flashback.

It was a little more than four months ago that Ekblad was here for a much different purpose, the 2014 NHL Draft, when the Panthers selected him with the first pick.

"I kind of remember [where I sat]," Ekblad said after the Panthers optional morning skate. "Off to the side there. I pointed it out to one of the guys."

Since that day in late June, Ekblad has emerged as one of the Panthers' top defensemen. He has one goal and four points in 10 games, and he's averaging 21:41 of ice time per game, fourth on the Panthers and second among NHL rookies.

Not bad for the youngest player in the League, who won't turn 19 until February.

"He was the first overall pick so there were big expectations," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. "I don't think the kid has disappointed anybody so far. He gets better every day when we watch him. We're real happy with the progression he's making. Plays the game the way we want him to play."

Ice time is a sign of how much confidence a coach has in a player, and looking at Ekblad's ice time -- he's played more than 20 minutes eight times in 10 games, including 24:05 on Tuesday against the Boston Bruins -- shows how the Panthers coaching staff feels about him.

"We're real comfortable," Gallant said. "It's been 10 games so far and we got no issues with him. [Assistant coach] Mark Morris runs the defense, he puts him on, plays him at least 20 minutes every night. That goes to show we're comfortable with him when you're playing him over 20 minutes a game."

Returning to Philadelphia, the place his NHL journey began, allowed Ekblad to look back at how much things have changed for him in such a short time.

"Lot of good things have happened," he said. "I'm learning from all the mistakes I've made in between. Just trying to capitalize on all those learning experiences. I've been through quite a bit here in this little while and it's been fun."

One of them has been getting used to playing in close games. Nine of the Panthers' 10 games this season have been decided by one goal, including the past eight. That Florida is 4-1-3 in that span has made things a bit easier to take.

"When we look at the makeup of our team, our guys are confident the way we're playing now that we have a chance to win those games," Gallant said. "Any time you get points on the road or points with your hockey club when it's a one-goal game, you're pretty happy. We're not content but we're happy with our start. ... It's about getting points and we're getting points early in the season. I think we're playing a team game. Lot of good things are happening."

The Philadelphia Flyers are hoping to continue their streak of good play on home ice. They've won three in a row and have been perfect at home on the penalty kill (17-for-17).

They'll have a different look on the top line, with Chris VandeVelde moving up to replace the injured Michael Raffl at left wing alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. Raffl is out six weeks because of a lower-body injury sustained in the Flyers' 4-1 defeat of the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday.

Flyers coach Craig Berube said he opted for VandeVelde in that spot because he plays a style similar to Raffl.

"I want a simple player," Berube said. "I want someone who's going to go in straight lines, good defensively, big body. He has all those things. Skates well. He's been physical this year. It's important that we have a guy like that on that line. Giroux and Voracek have the puck a lot. They're going to do a lot of the work with the puck. We need a guy to get in there and bang bodies and get pucks to the net. ... I'm excited to see how it looks."

VandeVelde has one goal and three points in eight games and has spent most of the season on the fourth line. So getting a promotion to play with a Hart Trophy finalist and one of the League's top scorers is a nice change for him.

"It's good," he said. "I've had a few shifts with them here and there. ... Just go to the net and those guys will get you the puck. That's where I'm going to go. Play a simple game. I'm not going to change anything."

Here are the projected lineups:


Jussi Jokinen - Aleksander Barkov - Brad Boyes

Scottie Upshall - Nick Bjugstad - Jimmy Hayes

Tomas Fleischmann - Vincent Trocheck - Rocco Grimaldi

Shawn Thornton - Derek MacKenzie - Tomas Kopecky

Brian Campbell - Aaron Ekblad

Erik Gudbranson - Dylan Olsen

Willie Mitchell - Dmitry Kulikov

Roberto Luongo

Al Montoya

Scratched: Colby Robak

Injured: Jonathan Huberdeau (illness), Dave Bolland (lower body), Sean Bergenheim (lower body), Brandon Pirri (upper body)


Chris VandeVelde - Claude Giroux - Jakub Voracek

R.J. Umberger - Vincent Lecavalier - Wayne Simmonds

Brayden Schenn - Sean Couturier - Matt Read

Zac Rinaldo - Pierre-Edouard Bellemare - Jason Akeson

Nicklas Grossmann - Mark Streit

Michael Del Zotto - Nick Schultz

Carlo Colaiacovo - Luke Schenn

Steve Mason

Ray Emery

Scratched: Blair Jones

Injured: Kimmo Timonen (blood clots), Braydon Coburn (lower body), Andrew MacDonald (lower body), Michael Raffl (lower body)

Status report: Barkov returns to the lineup after missing three games with a lower-body injury. "It was a bone bruise, something like that," Barkov said. "Not bad but was a little sore all the time. Now I'm ready to go."... Coburn and MacDonald took part in the morning skate. It was MacDonald's first time on the ice since Oct. 22. "Felt pretty good," he said. "It's still a little bit stiff. Going to have to work the legs a little bit to get them going again. All in all, felt pretty good." Coburn and MacDonald aren't ready to return to the lineup, but Berube said it was nice to have them out there. "I'm sure they [other players] are excited about them guys skating and getting ready to play," Berube said. "I am. I'm sure they are."

Who's hot: Jokinen has points in five straight games, with one goal and six points in that span. Prior to his scoring streak he had no points in his first five games. ... Voracek has three goals and eight assists during his six-game point streak.


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