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Florida Panthers optimistic Aaron Ekblad ‘OK’ after injury Friday night

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Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad is helped off the ice by head athletic trainer Dave DiNapoli (left) and assistant athletic trainer Tommy Alva after hurting his right leg on his first shift Friday night in Anaheim. — AP Photo/Ashley Landis

When Florida Panthers star defenseman Aaron Ekblad had to be helped off the ice unable to put any weight on his right leg Friday night, the same thought went through a lot of people’s heads.

The first was oh no.

The next had to be not again.

Ekblad sustained what was a season-ending injury to his left leg last March. It appeared in the moment he may have suffered a similar fate in the first period of Friday night’s game against the Anaheim Ducks.

Coach Andrew Brunette calmed concerns a bit in his postgame press conference, saying Ekblad was found not to have any structural damage in his right leg and the team hopes he will only be out in the short term.

“It’s not as bad as we thought it was going to be,” Brunette said at the start of his postgame comments.

Later, he went into a little more detail.

“Sure, you’re worried,” Brunette said. “I felt bad because, when you see that, you think back to last year. I’m so happy it’s not last year. He’s going to be OK.’’

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The Panthers, coming off a loss in Las Vegas the night before, were obviously not in the right frame of mind after seeing one of their most popular — and talented — teammates go down the way he did.

Jonathan Huberdeau, who got Florida’s eventual 3-0 win rolling with a pair of first period goals, said it was tough to get into the game after seeing Ekblad leave the ice that way.

Especially since most of them were in Dallas last March when Ekblad had to be carted off the ice on a stretcher.

The Panthers’ players, as well as anyone else watching the game, had to wonder whether Ekblad’s season was over prematurely once again.

“It was sad. It was like ‘not again’,” Huberdeau said. “Obviously it’s just unlucky. Last year was unlucky. This year, same thing. It’s hockey, but with the year he was having last year and again in this one … he’s having such a good season, it wasn’t easy to see him go down like that.”

Ekblad’s injury definitely cast a shadow on a terrific performance for the Panthers — especially under the circumstances.

Although the Ducks are not the Colorado Avalanche, the Panthers utterly dominated the game the night after being disappointed with their showing against the Vegas Golden Knights.

”We had every excuse in the book,’’ Brunette said. “We didn’t use any.”

Huberdeau’s first goal, off a power play almost 14 minutes in, was all rookie goalie Spencer Knight needed.

It was not Knight’s heaviest workload of his young NHL career but it was a milestone night regardless.

After facing only four shots on goal in the opening period, Knight ended up making 17 stops to record his first NHL shutout.

He also got one last month for AHL Charlotte giving him two pro shutouts in his past few starts.

“It was a nice outcome and it was nice to get but, at the same time, I’m just glad to win,” said Knight, who started all four games on the road trip.

It appeared Florida would take a 1-0 lead into the room for the first intermission only Sasha Barkov dug a puck out of the corner and fed Huberdeau for his second of the night — with only seven seconds left on the clock.

The Panthers made it 3-0 on Joe Thornton’s goal early in the second and that was that.

Anaheim had a couple of chances — defenseman Gus Forsling saved the shutout with a block of his own in the third — but not very many.

”The whole team rallied around the injury,” Brunette said. “That speaks to the whole group, their competitiveness and how they’re all there for each other. They all picked each other up. It was a real good rallying moment and we felt terrible for Eckie … but I like how the guys rallied.”

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