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Panthers vs. Flyers preview: Getting to know the playoff contenders from South Florida

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We sat down with Kevin Kraczkowski from SB Nation's Florida Panthers blog, The Litter Box, to discuss the team heading into Thursday night's game vs. the Flyers.

Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports
1. The Panthers are right there battling for a playoff spot. How expected or unexpected is that?

KK: Just like every other NHL fan, I thought, maybe, this year is the year. To see the Panthers actually maintaining a hold on that last playoff spot is nerve-wracking, to say the least. It’d be cool if they can actually string a few win streaks together and not give me an ulcer.

Florida (like Edmonton) has been building through the draft with very high picks for a few years. Home grown first rounders currently icing significant time with the Cats include Erik Gudbranson, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Dmitry Kulikov and Nick Bjugstad. Strong play in net from returning hero Roberto Luongo and a better than expected showing from backup Al Montoya make each goal stand out just a little more.

As for expected vs. unexpected -- you’re asking the wrong guy. I expect the postseason every season, even as all the prognosticators forecast continued doom for South Florida’s best NHL team. To their credit, they’re usually right, but maybe this time they’re wrong. That’s why they play the games, right?

2. There were rumors at the draft that the Flyers were trying to trade up to get Aaron Ekblad. How has he performed this season in Florida, and how envious should Flyers fans be?

Ekblad is exactly what we expected him to be. It's just that he is what he is a lot sooner than most would have expected. He's currently on pace for 53 points, which would be the second best ever season (points wise) for an 18-year-old defenseman. And they say that a blue-liner typically takes around 300 games to really get up to speed at the NHL level. If this is the floor, where's the ceiling?

He's by far the best back-court player on the team, more than doubling next-best blueliner Brian Campbell's 1.8 point shares. His plus-6 rating is second best on the club (behind Tomas Fleischmann's plus-8), and he trails leading scorer Nick Bjugstad by one point, with five goals and 18 points overall.

Should you be envious? The jury is still out on Travis Sanheim (Philly's first round pick, 17th overall). The kid is averaging over a point per night for the WHL's Calgary Hitmen, but he is surely not going to play in the NHL this season, and most likely not next year either. I guess the short answer is yes, for now at least, you should be pretty envious.

3. Who's one under the radar Panther we should watch out for on Thursday night, and why?

There’s many players who could possibly have a breakout game ... but as for under the radar…

RADAR was originally an acronym used by the US Military, standing for RAdio Detection And Ranging. It’s peacetime use is and mostly always has been to deconflict aircraft, making sure the dots don’t touch as it were. In open warfare, it has come to be used in missile guidance. The Panther most likely to surprise you with a howitzer from the blueline is the cannon shot from Erik Gudbranson. He’s not much of a scorer, with just six markers and 26 total points over 197 games. And it’s not a particularly accurate shot either, but man, he hits it REALLY hard.

You should also watch out for Jonathan Huberdeau. He was very highly touted, like Gudbranson selected by Florida third overall. He’s notched only three goals thus far this season, but I have a feeling he’s overdue. I don’t see him averaging under a point per game through his career. Maybe that’s just the homer in me talking, but the kid has some soft hands.