COLUMBUS - Before yesterday morning, the only time R.J. Umberger had spent in the visitors' locker room at Nationwide Arena came during the 2012-13 NHL lockout, when the Blue Jackets' locker room, obviously, wasn't accessible.
"It's pretty weird," he noted after the Flyers practiced here yesterday. "It's a different feeling."
Though the Flyers (9-13-4) already have twice faced Scott Hartnell and the Blue Jackets (9-15-2), tonight's meeting is the first in Columbus. It's a meaningful one for Umberger, Philadelphia's oft-maligned third-line left wing. He has, after all, spent nearly a third of his life playing hockey in Ohio's capital city.
That's 3 years at Ohio State (2001-03) and six seasons with the Blue Jackets (2008-14) for the 32-year-old Pittsburgh native.
"[The] first time playing back here will be special," he said. "This was a place I loved playing for a long time."
Four of Umberger's five 20-goal campaigns came with the Blue Jackets (his first was with the Flyers in 2005-06). His ice time declined last season before the offseason trade in exchange for Hartnell that landed him in Philadelphia for his second stint with the team.
Umberger's struggles (only four points in 26 games) amid a disappointing start to this season have been well-documented. When fans critique the team's lack of secondary scoring, he's typically the first culprit mentioned. He's on pace for career lows in goals, assists, points and shots.
Before his second-period goal in Wednesday night's shootout loss at Anaheim, Umberger went a career-worst 17 games between points. His play on the recently completed three-game California trip built confidence.
"I think any transition can be difficult, trying to see where you fit and belong on a team," he said. "It's been a little harder than I thought it would be, but, as the team's been playing better, I feel like my game's been coming along and I'm starting to get a good niche of what I can bring to this team. I like where it's going right now, and I think I can bring a lot the rest of the year."
Flyers coach Craig Berube said Umberger has "had his ups and downs, but he's playing real good hockey right now."
"Umby's been working hard and staying with it and that's the key," Berube said. "He hasn't wavered from that. He keeps working hard. He's actually probably feeling a lot better about himself right now the way he's playing. He's doing a good job for us.
"He's killing penalties, working hard. He's on our line we use against top lines. He's checking well and getting some opportunities to score and he put one in the other night. So things are going pretty good for him right now."
The arena stands tonight will feature friends and family of Umberger. In his years with the Blue Jackets, he remained in Columbus year-round rather than spending the offseason elsewhere. He was a fixture in the community. Each of his and his wife's three kids was born in their adopted hometown. It's where he said he plans to settle his family when his playing days are over.
"I expect it's going to be emotional to start," he said of tonight's game. "It will be fun. More than anything, you've just got to kind of treat it like another game. Our team's been playing a better way the last few games so it's just another important game for us to trend up in the right way. Obviously it will have some special meaning for me, but I can't get too caught up in that."
Columbus enters tonight on a season-high three-game winning streak following a road win Saturday against Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay . . . Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, the former Flyer, is on a hot streak, recording a 1.62 goals against average and a .956 save percentage during his team's winning streak . . . Scott Hartnell has five goals and 11 assists in 26 games. None of his 16 points has come in the two games against the Flyers . . . A common thread in Columbus' winning streak is it's scored first in each of the three games. "We've got to be really ready at the start of the game," Flyers coach Craig Berube said. "They're going to come out hard in this building. They're a good team. They're an aggressive team and we've got to be on our toes early in this game." . . . The Flyers practiced with the same lines they employed Saturday in Los Angeles, meaning Vinny Lecavalier likely will be a healthy scratch for the fourth consecutive game, along with defensemen Luke Schenn and Carlo Colaiacovo . . . Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky makes his season debut tonight after missing the first 26 games following abdominal surgery on Oct. 8.