When the 2016-17 NHL season started, it was expected that the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils would find themselves battling one another for playoff positioning within the competitive Metropolitan Division.
Nearly three months into the season, though, the Flyers (20-11-4) are on much more solid ground than the Devils (12-13-7), due in large part to recent streaks that have taken the teams in opposite directions.
Philadelphia won ten games in a row from Nov. 27 through Dec. 14, a run which catapulted the Flyers into a comfortable Wild Card position after an uneven 9-10-3 start to the season.
Meanwhile the Devils, who started strong at 9-3-3 through Nov. 15, are mired in a seven-game losing streak (0-6-1) and are fighting not to drop into last place in the Eastern Conference.
"It doesn't get much lower than where we are now," said Devils forward Kyle Palmieri. "The bottom line is it's seven straight losses; and it's up to us to come out and find a way to get some better results."
The coaches and players believed that New Jersey was turning a corner last weekend when the team played two solid, competitive games, albeit in back-to-back losses to the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers.
Then on Tuesday night, the Devils were thoroughly dominated in a dispiriting 5-1 home-ice loss to the Nashville Predators.
When asked afterward if there were any positives he could derive from his club's most recent defeat, Devils head coach John Hynes simply replied, "No."
New Jersey has scored just nine goals during its seven-game losing streak, while surrendering 24. The lack of scoring is spread throughout the lineup. Travis Zajac has not scored a goal in nine games; Michael Cammalleri and Beau Bennett are both without a goal in eight straight; Palmieri is in a seven-game drought; and Taylor Hall has not scored in the last six matches.
"We have to make sure we are a better team against the Flyers," said Hynes.
Philadelphia skated to a 3-2 shootout victory at home against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night. Claude Giroux scored the game-tying goal late in the second period, while Wayne Simmonds had the decisive goal in the shootout, and goaltender Steve Mason stopped 36 of 38 shots for the Flyers on Wednesday.
The win puts the Flyers at 1-1-1 since their ten-game winning streak ended.
"This was definitely a must-win for us," Mason said on NBCSN after beating the Capitals. "You go on a ten-game winning streak, you can't let that slide and then go on a losing streak."
Mason has been a workhorse in goal for the Flyers. He has started 17 of the last 19 games since fellow netminder Michal Neuvirth was sidelined with a knee injury on Nov. 12. Mason has allowed two goals or fewer in 12 of his last 17 starts.
Thursday's contest at the Prudential Center will be the first of five meetings between these two division rivals this season. A year ago, New Jersey posted a 2-1-1 mark against Philadelphia, though they lost both contests played on their home ice, one in regulation and the other in overtime.
"Any time you play teams like this in your division, there's a little more feel to it," Giroux said to Philly.com.