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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Playoff Notebook: Florida Panthers Get Top Defenseman Back for Game 1

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The Florida Panthers will have Aaron Ekblad back in the lineup for Game 1 of the playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday afternoon. // Roger Lee Photographer (561) 866-2000

FORT LAUDERDALE — After missing the final six games of the regular season with a lower-body injury, Aaron Ekblad will return to the Florida Panthers lineup for Game 1 of their first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday.

“He would have played last game had it been a playoff game,” coach Paul Maurice said.

“But we just didn’t see there was a point and we had enough healthy, strong defensemen for that game.”

Ekblad is no stranger to dealing with injuries.

He missed the first month of this year’s regular season after dealing with a plethora of injuries during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final and undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason.

Ekblad also had lower-body injuries which ended his regular season the prior three years in 2020, 2021 and 2022 before returning for the postseason in the latter years.

But after all of that he has still been one of the team’s most physically imposing presences, blocking shots and throwing hits while playing reliable defense in the back end.

“It’s really important, right?” Maurice said. “Last year, he was playing with like five different injuries, so he’s got a long runway and he has a lot of room to get hurt. There was a whole bunch of that going on and that’s part of the learning process that you go through about what plaers are willing to sacrifice for each other.

“Lots of broken bones, lots of muscle tears, separated shoulders, ankle sprains. Those are the hard things, and that’s not the bruises and all the stuff every player carries. But it really sets a standard of what players are going to do and the trust between them that they’re willing to sacrifice.”

Ekblad also provides a boost offensively, too.

This season has been slower offensively than prior years — with his numbers dipping to four goals and 18 points in 51 games after shifting to a more defensively-focused style — but he has the skills to add an extra boost.

His numbers in the postseason speak for that, with three goals and 14 points in 40 games.

Ekblad had been a mainstay on any of Florida’s two power play units over the past 10 years, but it appears that he will not be on either of them, for now.

POWERED UP

In practice on Friday, Oliver Ekman-Larsson was the lone defenseman on the second power play unit after the Panthers ran a two-defensemen unit with Ekblad alongside him all year.

Eetu LuostarinenSam BennettEvan Rodrigues and Vladimir Tarasenko joined Ekman-Larsson for those drills.

Ekblad did all of his special teams work with the top penalty killing unit of Luostarinen, Kevin Stenlund and Gus Forsling against the same top power play unit Florida has ran all year when healthy.

Florida has the depth to give Ekblad a lighter load.

And Ekman-Larsson, who missed the final game of the season due to injury, also seems good to go for Game 1 after Maurice stated so ahead of Tuesday’s game.

— The NHL released the first-round schedule early Friday morning with the Panthers playing host to the Lightning on Sunday and Tuesday for Games 1 and 2.

The series turns to Tampa on Thursday for Game 3, with Game 4 next Saturday.

The rest of the series can be found below.

For The Best Coverage of the Florida Panthers Anywhere:

STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (WC1) VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS (ATL1)
GAME 1
  • When: Sunday, 12:30 p.m.
  • Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
  • Local TV/National TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida/ESPN/ESPN+
  • Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
  • First Round Schedule — Game 1: Sunday at Florida, 12:30 p.m. (BSF, ESPN); Game 2: Tuesday at Florida, 7:30 (BSF, ESPN2); Game 3: Thursday at Tampa Bay, 7 (BSF, TBS); Game 4:Saturday Ap. 27 at Tampa Bay, 5 (BSF, TBS, TruTV); Game 5*:Monday Ap. 29 at Florida, TBA (BSF, TBA); Game 6*: Wednesday May 1 at Tampa Bay, TBA (BSF, TBA); Game 7*:Saturday May 4 at Florida, TBA (BSF, TBA). (*) — If necessary
  • 2023-24 Regular Season Series (Panthers Won 2-1) — At Tampa Bay: Panthers 3, Lightning 2 (Dec. 27)Panthers 9, Lightning 2 (Feb. 17). At Florida: Lightning 5, Panthers 3 (March 16).
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Florida leads 77-51-19, 10 ties
  • All-Time Postgame Series: Lightning Leads 2-0 (2021 first-round, 2022 ECS)

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