SUNRISE — When the Florida Panthers hosted the NHL All-Star Game, Aaron Ekblad was the only one of the team’s new ‘Big 3’ not participating.
And it was probably for the best.
Ekblad has been playing through some injuries throughout this season — to his groin, shoulder and perhaps more — which were visibly slowing him down.
He missed 11 of Florida’s 53 games this season, all during a stint on long-term injured reserve due to a torn groin sustained in October.
The star defenseman, who is usually in the Norris Trophy conversation, went into the All-Star break with eight goals and 24 points not to mention a minus-15.
“I’ve gone through a lot and not many games have been healthy games,” Ekblad said.
“It has been tough but it has been fun. You have to find new ways to push yourself as always, but I am feeling healthy now.”
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound defenseman was finding his groove just before the break — notching four points in his last three games going in — but did not let the time off knock him out of rhythm.
He came back and had two assists in Florida’s 7-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday.
“It was a bit of a challenge, but in my time, I have learned how to manage the break,” Ekblad said.
“I was staying in shape and doing things to make it easier to come back, so I found what works over the course of a few years and I feel very good.”
Ekblad’s skating looked as good as it has all year and he stepped in to make multiple big defensive plays to keep the Panthers in it when the game was close.
He logged the most minutes by any Florida player (23:57) and had 3:17 of ice time on a penalty kill that went 2-for-2 on the night.
“I think there’s a confidence,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said. “Some rest for all of those guys on the back end (really helped.) When your team gets fatigued, you spend more time in our end of the ice and less time in the offensive zone, which puts a huge toll on our back end.
“He plays huge minutes against the other team’s best so the rest for him more than anybody was critical. He was moving great tonight.”
The Panthers are in a spot where they desperately need Ekblad to continue a return to form.
They are three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with 29 games to go.
“Everybody has to go through some rough patches but he is always out there against their top line,” Radko Gudas said.
“I think he is playing really well and if he can lead for us the way he is, it’s only our advantage because we have three defensive and offensive pairs that can play against everybody and I think he can show when we continue rolling.
“He is a leader for us back there. He is a main factor for us and it’s fun to watch him.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
SAN JOSE SHARKS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5 FM-2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 2-0
- This season — Florida leads 1-0: Panthers 4, Sharks 3 (Nov. 3)
- All-time regular season series: Florida leads 20-13-1, 7 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Saturday vs. Colorado, 6 p.m.