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Bobrovsky Starts, Saarela Debuts as Panthers Host Blue Jackets

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

12/7/19 Morning Skate

12/7/19 Morning Skate

Interviews with Head Coach Joel Quenneville, forward Noel Acciari and defenseman Mike Matheson.

  • 01:40 •

SUNRISE, Fla. - Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to face off against his former team for the first time when the Florida Panthers host the Columbus Blue Jackets at BB&T Center on Saturday.

Prior to joining the Panthers on a seven-year contract this past summer, the 31-year-old veteran spent the previous seven seasons in Columbus, winning the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender in 2013 and 2017 while also backstopping the club to the playoffs on four occasions.

"He certainly had a great stretch there with Columbus," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "It's one of those things where there's going to be a lot of focus on him, but at the same time it's a good opportunity for him to get back in the net and do his thing."

Returning to the net after backing up Chris Driedger in each of the last two games, Bobrovsky will look to snap out of a personal two-game skid - a stretch that followed a season-high, three-game win streak. In 21 appearances this season, he's posted a 9-6-4 record with one shutout.

"It will be a weird feeling to play against guys you spent seven years with," said Bobrovsky, who owns a 6-2-2 record at home this season. "It'll be interesting. I know how hard they work. It's not going to be an easy game, that's for sure."

Tonight's game will also mark the NHL regular-season debut of forward Aleksi Saarela.

Recalled from AHL Springfield on Friday, the 22-year-old forward registered 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 17 games with the Thunders prior to earning his call-up to the Panthers.

"I'm really excited," Saarela said. "I've been waiting for this for a while. I'm happy to be here."

Acquired from Chicago back in October, Saarela appeared in one game with the Carolina Hurricanes, who dealt him to the Blackhawks in June, during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That same season, he reached AHL career-highs in goals (30) and points (54) while helping lead Carolina's AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, to the 2019 Calder Cup championship.

Saarela joins a Panthers offense that currently ranks fifth in the league in goals per game (3.44).

"He's got a real great shot," Quenneville said. "I'm looking forward to seeing how he does in the middle of the ice. I think offensively he's got good instincts. His overall game, it looks like he's improving. He's one of those young players where it looks like there's some ability there."

In his Panthers debut, Saarela will center Noel Acciari and Frank Vatrano on the third line.

"We haven't had much time [together], but I thought he looked good out there at yesterday's practice," Acciari said. "He's got a hard shot. He's a good two-way forward. He's got some skill there. We showed some chemistry in practice, so we'll try and keep that rolling here tonight."

Entering the third game of a franchise-record, nine-game homestand, the Panthers have lost four of their last five games after stringing together a three-game winning streak. Most recently, they saw a 2-0 lead slip through their fingers in a 4-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday.

With a 13-9-5 record, Florida currently sits in third place in the Atlantic Division.

"We had a really good first period, but then it seemed like we kind of let them back into it and then didn't recover," Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson said of the loss to Minnesota. "The start tonight is really important, but then to also continue on through the rest of the game."

The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, enter tonight's matchup in the midst of a three-game losing streak after suffering a 3-2 defeat against the New York Rangers on Tuesday. After winning three straight games, they've lost five of their last seven contests since then to fall to 11-13-4.

Pierre-Luc Dubois leads the Columbus in goals (10) and is tied with Gustav Nyquist for the team-scoring lead with 18 points. The only team in the league without a 20-point player, the Blue Jackets currently rank 27th in the league on offense, averaging 2.50 goals per game. The

Panthers own a 7-4-2 record at home this season, while Columbus is 3-5-3 on the road.

"They're a straight-ahead team," Quenneville said of the Blue Jackets. "There's nothing fancy about them - they go straight at you. You don't have a lot of time, a lot of space. They go to the net as good as any team in the league. Their defense plays a tight game as well. They're disciplined with how they play their team game… They'll try and beat you in the hard areas."

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Keith Yandle ranks first among Florida's defensemen in points (22) and is also tied for third among the league's blueliners in assists (20). Entering tonight's matchup on a three-game point streak, the 33-year-old has four assists in that span. Over his last 16 games, he has 18 points.

-- Brett Connolly leads the Panthers with 12 goals. The 27-year-old winger also ranks fifth on the team in points (19) and has racked up six goals and two assists over his last nine games.

-- Jonathan Huberdeau has registered at least one point in 20 of Florida's 27 games this season to claim sole possession of the team-scoring lead with 33 points (11 goals, 22 assists). The 26-year-old has notched 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) over his last 19 contests.

-- Vincent Trocheck has three goals and five assists over his last nine games. The 26-year-old winger also leads Florida in takeaways (24) and ranks third in faceoff win percentage (51.7).

-- Aleksander Barkov leads the Panthers in multi-point games (11) and ranks second in scoring with 32 points, including the sixth-most assists in the league (23). With one more goal, the 24-year-old center will move into a tie with Stephen Weiss (249) for the fourth-most goals in franchise history.

-- Aaron Ekblad leads the Panthers in average ice time per game (24:06), while also leading the club's defensemen in goals (5). Over his last six games, the 23-year-old has notched two goals and three assists, including the first multi-goal game of his career on Nov. 21 against Anaheim.

-- Evgenii Dadonov is tied for third on Florida in goals (10) and ranks fourth in points (21).

-- Anton Stralman scored his first two goals of the season to help lead the Panthers past the Predators on Nov. 30. The fourth multi-goal game of his career, the 33-year-old defenseman also leads the team in blocks (39) and ranks second in average ice time per game (21:09).

-- Mike Hoffman is tied for first on the Panthers in shots (79) and tied for third in goals (10).

-- Brian Boyle leads Florida with a 57.1 faceoff win percentage.

PROJECTED LINEUP

Forwards

Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Evgenii Dadonov

Mike Hoffman - Vincent Trocheck - Brett Connolly

Frank Vatrano - Aleksi Saarela - Noel Acciari

Dominic Toninato - Brian Boyle - Colton Sceviour

Defensemen

MacKenzie Weegar - Aaron Ekblad

Keith Yandle - Anton Stralman

Mike Matheson - Josh Brown

Goalies

Sergei Bobrovsky

Chris Driedger

Scratches: Mark Pysyk, Denis Malgin, Jayce Hawryluk (upper-body)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- Nov. 6: F Aleksi Saarela was recalled from AHL Springfield.

- Nov. 25: G Chris Driedger was recalled from AHL Springfield.

- Nov. 25: G Sam Montembeault was loaned to AHL Springfield.

IN-ARENA ACTIVATIONS

- 50/50 Raffle with guaranteed pot of at least $25,000 

- Territory Takeover (Boca Raton)

- Sip N' Stroll Art Walk

BITE OF BB&T CENTER

- Cuban Sandwich for $10 at Select Concession Stands

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Saturday, Dec. 7, 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL

TV: FSF

Stream: FOX Sports GO

Panthers Radio Network: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 850 WFTL (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM 207, App/Streaming 932

Tickets: HERE

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