SUNRISE — For the first time since Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, Aaron Ekblad will play a home game with the Florida Panthers tonight.
Ekblad, the second-longest tenured Florida player, missed the first 16 games of the season after having shoulder surgery not long following the conclusion of the playoffs.
On Friday night, he and fellow defenseman Brandon Montour played their first game of the season in Anaheim.
Tonight, both get to play on home ice.
“Any home game is nice because it is a completely different atmosphere,’’ Ekblad said following practice on Sunday morning. “The feel of the ice is something we are consistently used to. Just pretty happy to be back and to be playing on our home ice.”
It has been a tough couple of months for both Ekblad and Montour as the duo had surgery within two days of one another.
Montour had torn his labrum during the playoffs; Ekblad needed surgery on a shoulder which had been bothering him for some time.
As Ekblad discussed during his final media session following the Game 5 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, he had been playing through a number of injuries throughout last season.
Not only did he have the shoulder injury, but he also had a groin concern and was playing on a broken foot for much of the postseason.
The time off due to the shoulder surgery allowed him to get healthy — and come back to the Florida lineup playing without pain for the first time in a while.
“It was a couple of years where things went a little sideways,” Ekblad said. “To have five months to get into really good shape and to feel good is a huge plus. There is still a lot of work to be done on the shoulder, to keep it strong but all-in-all it is comfortable and I feel good out there playing my position.”
Ekblad and Montour spent a lot of time together during rehabilitation and had been skating together since the start of Florida’s training camp.
Many times they were joined by newcomer Jonah Gadjovich — who also made his season debut on Friday night as he played in his first game with the Panthers after joining the team from San Jose over the summer.
Although coach Paul Maurice said both Ekblad and Montour could have played earlier than Friday, the team waited as the initial timeline for their return was somewhere around Dec. 15.
That timeline got moved up as the two progressed.
“It was tough, but we came back early — earlier than prescribed,” Ekblad said. “That is a hats-off to our medical staff more than anyone because they do a great job. Having Monty next to me, we were able to push each other on a daily basis. Whenever he saw me doing something or I saw him doing something, we made it a little competition. I like to say I beat him by two days because I had surgery two days after he did.’’
Sitting out and watching the team is never fun, but seeing the Panthers have success minus two of their top players at least numbed that pain.
The Panthers come into this three-game Thanksgiving homestand in second place in the Atlantic Division at 11-5-1.
Florida plays host to the Oilers, Bruins and Jets this week.
“You can look at it both ways, right?’’ Ekblad countered. “When the team is struggling, you want to get back and make a difference. When the team is doing really well, you want to be a part of it. It stinks either way. Winning does make things more comfortable because everyone is happy and you can bring a positive attitude into the rink every day.’’
PANTHERS ON DECK
EDMONTON OILERS @ FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Monday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL App
- This Season: @Florida, Monday; @ Edmonton, Dec. 16
- Last season: Edmonton won 2-0
- All-time regular season series: Edmonton leads 23-14-0, 3 ties