CORAL SPRINGS — When the Florida Panthers brought in Ben Chiarot at the NHL Trade Deadline, they saw a multitude of qualities in him including size, physicality, playoff experience and leadership.
“I like when he gets mad,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said. “He plays hard and heavy and I think that’s really effective, especially in the playoffs.”
He has brought that and then some so far during Florida’s first postseason series.
Chiarot made multiple goal-saving plays in close Panthers wins throughout the first round and played through what seemed like a rough lower-body injury in a series-clinching Game 6 after missing the latter half of the first period following multiple blows to the ankle.
He was able to play through it.
“The second one was just a shot off the foot, which kind of happens all the time,” Chiarot said. “The first was was just awkward, [Garnett Hathaway] just fell on the back of my ankle. There’s nothing really to talk about.”
Still, when he and Aaron Ekblad, who also missed most of the first period after taking a big hit from Alex Ovechkin, made their return to the ice, it provided a big boost to the group in the second period.
“It’s playoff hockey,” Chiarot said. “You have to push through whatever’s going on with your body. It kind of just comes with the territory of playing in the playoffs.
“I don’t think they would have expected anything less and that goes for all of us. I expect everyone to kind of push through that.”
Of course, Chiarot knows a thing or two about playoff hockey.
He came into the 2022 postseason with 56 games played, including two appearances in the Conference final.
Last season, he made it to the Stanley Cup Final with the Montreal Canadiens, who lost in five to the Lightning.
Guess who the Panthers happen to be playing in their first second-round playoff series since 1996?
“It’s always fun to take a shot at the defending champs,” Chiarot said. “It’s a team that these guys know pretty well and a team that I know pretty well. So, it will be fun.”
He also played a big part in getting them there in the first place.
When the Panthers found themselves down 2-1 in the series, Brunette opted to make some changes to the defense pairings.
One of the moves was to place Chiarot on the left side of Ekblad, who had grown accustomed to playing alongside MacKenzie Weegar almost exclusively over the last few seasons.
Florida’s defense — both with Chiarot and Ekblad’s pairing together and Weegar back with Gus Forsling — has looked a lot more fluid both on defense and in moving the puck since making the switch.
The Panthers also went on to win all three games since making the change, winning their first-round series against the Washington Capitals in six games.
“They’ve been a good pair,” Brunette said. “They haven’t given up a whole lot together and I feel like every shift they are out there, they get a little more comfortable with each other.”
The duo were thrown into the fire right away, having not played a single game together before the playoffs.
Of course, when Chiarot made his Panthers debut, Ekblad was out with a lower-body injury that kept him out until Game 1 of the first round.
It turned out pretty well.
“They are two different guys,” Brunette said. “Ben is a veteran that has been in these series so many different times, so I think it was a good compliment.
“It’s hard with defense pairings, and unfortunately Ekblad was hurt going into the playoffs and it’s a hard time to build any kind of chemistry, but they are constantly communicating and they feel more comfortable every time.”
Chiarot had experience playing on that top pairing during a deep playoff run before.
Just last season, he played alongside Shea Weber on Montreal’s top pairing en route to the Cup Final.
When he first arrived in South Florida in March, he saw the parallels between his former defense partner and his eventual partner in Ekblad.
“They are obviously both great defensemen,” Chiarot said. “They’re both great on the power play, they have great shots, they like to join the offense and create some chances. It suits my game well playing with a guy like that. I tend to be more defensive by nature, so I think that would work out perfectly.”
It did, but there were some added surprises thrown in.
Contrary to his assessment at the trade deadline, there are more similarities between Ekblad and himself than he previously thought.
“He is a smart player, he has very good hands and he is easy to play with,” Chiarot said. “We’re similar in the fact that we like to be in a more defensive position and he uses his hands on the blue line to make plays and create offense.
“I’m enjoying playing with him.”
NHL STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
FLORIDA PANTHERS V. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
- Game 1: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: TNT
- Radio: WQAM 560 (Miami/Fort Lauderdale); WMEN 640 (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3 (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Tickets: CLICK HERE
PANTHERS V. LIGHTNING
- Regular season series — Tied 2-2: Florida 4, @Lightning 1 (Oct. 19); @Lightning 3, Florida 2 OT (Nov. 13); @Florida 9, Lightning 3 (Dec 30); Tampa Bay 8, @Florida 4 (April 24).
- All-time regular season series: Panthers lead 73-49-18, 10 ties
- Playoff history: Second meeting; Tampa Bay d. Florida 4-2 in R1, 2021
- Round 1 — Florida d. Washington 4-2; Tampa Bay d. Toronto 4-3
- Full schedule — Game 1: Tampa Bay at Florida (TNT), 7; Game 2: Tampa Bay at Florida, Thursday, 7 (TNT); Game 3: Florida at Tampa Bay, Sunday, 1:30 (TNT); Game 4: Florida at Tampa Bay, Monday, 7 (TNT); Game 5*: Tampa Bay at Florida, Wednesday, May 25 (Time, TV TBA); Game 6*: Florida at Tampa Bay Lightning, Friday, May 27 (Time, TV TBA); Game 7*: Tampa Bay at Florida, Sunday, May 29 (Time, TV TBA). (*) — If necessary.