SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers will welcome back a big piece to their team Tuesday night when defenseman Aaron Ekblad returns to the lineup for Game 1 of their opening-round series against the Washington Capitals.
The best-of-7 series starts at 7:30 p.m. from FLA Live Arena in Sunrise (Bally Sports Florida, ESPN2).
Ekblad was on the ice for Florida’s first practice before the postseason on Sunday as well as Monday.
Although Ekblad has not been medically cleared by Monday morning, Andrew Brunette confirmed he would play at Tuesday’s morning skate.
”Ekblad cannot ease his way into anything,” Brunette said when asked if Florida would work its star defenseman slowly into the lineup.
“We’ll see how it goes. We’ll try and manage it a little bit but he is such a competitive guy, he’s going to want to go for every shift.”
Ekblad has been out of the lineup since being injured on his first shift of a game March 18 in Anaheim with a lower-body injury.
“He is a special player,” Sasha Barkov said. “It was so nice to see him back. Now it feels like normal.”
Ekblad kept his name in the Norris Trophy conversation until his injury as he ranked fourth in goals (15) and fifth in points (57) among defensemen at the time of his injury.
“He’s been our leader since Day 1,” Radko Gudas said. “He plays the biggest role on our back end and he was a stud the whole season, so we’re looking forward to having him back.
“It’s going to be hard for him to jump in right away Game 1, but you know if anyone can handle it, it’s him.”
Alex Ovechkin, who missed the final three games of the Capitals’ regular season, is expected to return as well.
On Sunday, Ovechkin said he could have played in one of those three games.
“We knew we make playoffs, and we just decided to take a rest,” Ovechkin said. “It’s going to be total different games than the regular season, obviously.”
Brunette said Sergei Bobrovsky would be the Game 1 starter.
”Bob is our guy,’’ Brunette said. “That’s the thought process. We’re taking it day-by-day expecting it to be Bob.”
MISS YOUR FACE
The Panthers and Capitals were old pals in the Southeast Division from 1998-2013 but this will be the first time the two meet in the playoffs.
Washington is trying to beat the Presidents’ Trophy-winning team for the first time in franchise history.
Florida is the only Eastern Conference team the Capitals have not faced in a playoff series.
Since 2014, Washington’s 42 playoff wins rank third in the NHL trailing Tampa Bay (70) and Pittsburgh (49).
While this will be Andrew Brunette’s first playoff game behind the bench, Peter Laviolette won the Cup as coach of Carolina in 2006; he reached the Finals with Philadelphia (2010) and Nashville (2017).
Laviolette ranks 15th in Stanley Cup playoff history with 76 career victories — and is third among active coaches. This will be Laviolette’s 13th trip to the postseason.
NHL STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
FLORIDA PANTHERS V. WASHINGTON CAPITALS (Best of 7)
- Game 1: Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN2/ESPN+
- Radio: WQAM 560 (flagship); WMEN 640 (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3 (Florida Keys); SiriusXM 219 (Streaming 932).
- Tickets: CLICK HERE
- Draft Kings odds — Florida favored: Money Line (-230); Puck line (-1.5, +110); Over/Under 6.5 (-110/-110); Series (-340)
PANTHERS V. CAPITALS
- Season series — Florida won 2-1: @Florida 5, Washington 4 OT (Nov. 4); @Washington 4, Panthers 3 (Nov. 26); @Florida 5, Washington 4 (Nov. 30)
- All-time regular season series: Capitals lead 67-44-11, 9 ties
- Playoff history: None
- First-round schedule — Game 1: Washington at Florida, Tuesday, 7:30 (ESPN2/BSF); Game 2: Washington at Florida, Thursday, 7:30 (TBS/BSF); Game 3: Florida at Washington, Saturday, 1 (ESPN/BSF); Game 4: Florida at Washington, May 9, 7 (TBS/BSF); Game 5*: Washington at Florida, May 11; Game 6*: Florida at Washington, May 13; Game 7: Washington at Florida, May 15. *If necessary
PROJECTED FLORIDA PANTHERS LINEUP
Coach: Andrew Brunette
23 Carter Verhaeghe // 16 Sasha Barkov // 10 Anthony Duclair
11 Jonathan Huberdeau // 8 Sam Bennett // 28 Claude Giroux
17 Mason Marchment // 15 Anton Lundell // 13 Sam Reinhart
94 Ryan Lomberg // 27 Eetu Luostarinen // 70 Patric Hornqvist
52 MacKenzie Weegar // 5 Aaron Ekblad
42 Gus Forsling // 7 Radko Gudas
8 Ben Chiarot // 62 Brandon Montour
72 Sergei Bobrovsky
30 Spencer Knight
PP1: Reinhart – Barkov – Giroux – Huberdeau – Ekblad
PP2: Hornqvist – Bennett – Duclair – Marchment – Montour
Scratched: Lucas Carlsson, Petteri Lindbohm, Joe Thornton, Maxim Mamin, Noel Acciari, Robert Hagg, Jonas Johansson
Injured: Markus Nutivaara (LTIR)
PROJECTED WASHINGTON CAPITALS LINEUP
Coach: Peter Laviolette
8 Alex Ovechkin // 92 Evgeny Kuznetsov // 73 Conor Sheary
90 Marcus Johansson // 19 Nicklas Backstrom // 43 Tom Wilson
39 Anthony Mantha // 20 Lars Eller // 77 T.J. Oshie
22 Johan Larsson // 26 Nic Dowd // 21 Garnet Hathaway
42 Martin Fehervary // 74 John Carlson
9 Dmitri Orlov // 3 Nick Jensen
57 Trevor van Riemsdyk // 2 Justin Schultz
41 Vitek Vanecek
30 Ilya Samsonov
PP1: Oshie – Backstrom – Kuznetsov – Ovechkin – Carlson
PP2: Wilson – Sheary – Mantha – Schultz – Orlov
Washington Capitals lines courtesy WashingtonHockeyNow.Com