After losing star defenseman Aaron Ekblad to a serious knee injury Sunday, the Florida Panthers return to action Tuesday, hosting the Detroit Red Wings.
Both the Panthers and Wings are on two-game win streaks — but under totally different circumstances in the Central Division.
While the Wings are rebuilding, the Panthers have been surging. While the Wings are in last place, the Panthers appear to be a playoff lock as they battle for first place with 21 games left in this shortened regular season.
However, injuries are always a factor in sports, but the way Ekblad went down awkwardly — writhing and screaming in pain — and had to be stretchered off the ice, made for an especially disturbing scene. Earlier in the game, he assisted on a Panthers’ power-play goal in a 4-1 triumph agaimst the Dallas Stars.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Ekblad, a two-time All-Star and the first overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, had scored an overtime goal in Florida’s 4-3 win over Dallas. That was Ekblad’s 11th goal of the season, tied for the most in the NHL among defensemen at the time that he scored.
“You can’t ask for anything more,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of Ekblad, who also has 11 assists. “His offensive contribution added a different dimension to our power play.”
The Panthers still have defenseman Keith Yandle (three goals, 17 assists) as their other power-play quarterback. Look for defenseman MacKenzie Weegar (two goals, 17 assists) to get more playing time and more power-play opportunities.
Beyond Ekblad, the Panthers have played three games without captain Aleksander Barkov due to a lower-body injury. Forward Patric Hornqvist also has missed two due to an unspecified injury.
Hornqvist is out for Tuesday’s game, and Barkov is questionable.
Barkov, Hornqvist and Ekblad — in that order — are three of Florida’s top five scorers this season, combining for 36 goals and 48 assists.
Yet, the Panthers remain optimistic.
“We have a group here that has the ability to win hockey games,” Quenneville said. “We need to find out what it’s like to win in the playoffs.”
The Red Wings — at least as an organization — know all about that as Detroit has won 11 Stanley Cup titles, most recently in 2008.
But the Wings are on their way this year to what is likely to be their fifth straight season without making the playoffs. They haven’t won a playoff round since 2013.
Current Wings coach Jeff Blashill, who was hired in 2015, was thrilled with how his team played in Sunday’s 4-1 win over Columbus.
“This was probably our most complete effort from start to finish this season,” Blashill said.
Goalie Calvin Pickard has both of Detroit’s victories during the winning streak.
“We competed all over the ice, and when (Columbus) got chances, he was back there,” Wings captain Dylan Larkin said. “He was rock solid. He didn’t give up rebounds. He just swallowed everything up.”
Pickard, a 28-year-old journeyman, has gotten into four games this season and is 2-0-0 with a 2.12 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage. There’s a good chance Detroit will turn to him on Tuesday, especially with Jonathan Bernier (8-6-0, 2.78 GAA, .918 SP) out due to injury.
Detroit also has used Thomas Greiss in goal, but he has struggled (2-14-4, 3.51 GAA, .885 SP).
Two more Detroit injuries of note are likely to keep left wing Bobby Ryan (seven goals, seven assists) and defenseman Marc Staal out on Tuesday.
The Panthers are likely to start goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (13-5-2, 2.91 GAA, .903 SP), though backup Chris Driedger (9-4-2, 2.19 GAA, .927 SP) has been outstanding and could get the start.
–Field Level Media