Aaron Ekblad will return to the Florida Panthers lineup on Tuesday night after missing the previous four games with a concussion.
If it was up to Ekblad, coach Tom Rowe said, he would have only missed three.
Ekblad, 21, returned to skating last week and said he felt so good he tried to hop on a plane and meet his team for Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh.
“We can’t afford to have him out of the lineup,” Rowe said. “He was itching to get play, wanted to come and play in Pittsburgh. We didn’t want to rush him back because he’s such a young guy ... with a concussion, we didn’t want to rush him back.”
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So, Ekblad had to wait until Tuesday.
“It feels great,” said Ekblad, who was run into the glass face-first on a high hit from Tampa Bay’s Gabriel Dumont on March 11. Dumont was not disciplined by the league for the hit.
“Being out is like the worst thing possible because you’re here at the rink more than if you were playing. It’s hard to be out, it’s hard to have another concussion but I feel good, feel like I made a full recovery already.”
Having Ekblad back helps solidify Florida’s defense although Jakub Kindl, who will be scratched Tuesday against the visiting Carolina Hurricanes (7:30 p.m., FSFL) has played well in his place.
Ekblad is a two-time All-Star and won the league’s rookie of the year award in 2015.
This is his third concussion-type injury in the past 14 months as he missed four games last year after being run from behind by Edmonton’s Matt Hendricks.
Ekblad was held out of the final games of the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto after being run into the boards with him explaining he was diagnosed with a form of whiplash and not a concussion.
“This wasn’t too bad,” Ekblad said Tuesday morning. “It’s still something I have to take care of. There’s no concern from me, I still feel good every day. I wake up and don’t have headaches. I feel good.”
A few minutes after Ekblad left that Tampa game, center Denis Malgin was driven into the glass on a rolling hip check from Anton Stralman.
Malgin was also diagnosed with a concussion and joined the Panthers as well on Tuesday.
Rowe said Malgin would not play against the Hurricanes, however.
“He’s cleared, he could play but just hasn’t had a whole lot of practice time, touched a lot of pucks,” Rowe said. “We’re still fighting for the last playoff spot, have every intention of playing it right to the end. [Shawn] Thornton has done a great job, the fourth line has given us great minutes and we didn’t want to break that up.
“Thornton deserved to stay in the lineup.”
▪ Reto Berra will make his first start in net since being acquired by the Panthers in June as James Reimer gets a well deserved night off.
Reimer has made the past eight starts for the Panthers since relieving Roberto Luongo after the first period on March 2 in Philadelphia. Reimer made starts on consecutive days twice during that span.
Berra, recalled from the minors following Luongo’s injury, played 25:12 in relief of Reimer in a blowout loss to the Rangers on March 7.
“He deserves a chance,” Rowe said of Berra, who will make his first NHL start since making 41 saves in a 1-0 shutout of Winnipeg for Colorado on April 9, 2015.
“We got him to make sure we had quality goaltending and he has been a real pro about the whole situation. He’s a good guy to have here.”
▪ Luongo spent over 30 minutes on the ice Tuesday working with goalie coach Robb Tallas as he tries to return after aggrevating an injury related to the hip surgery he had last summer.
Rowe said Luongo met with the doctor who performed that surgery and everything looks good. Luongo may return to full practice with the Panthers in the coming days and could see a few starts in Florida’s final games this season.
The Panthers came into Tuesday’s game eight points out of the final playoff spot after the Maple Leafs beat Boston on Monday.
▪ With Ekblad back, Florida sent rookie defenseman MacKenzie Weegar back to its AHL team in Massachusetts.
Weegar did not make his NHL debut while up with the Panthers as Kindl played in the four games Ekblad missed.