When the Panthers’ franchise-record, 12-game winning streak came to an end last week, Aaron Ekblad shaved the thick beard he had been cultivating since last summer.
“I thought I should change things up,” he said.
If Florida ends its recent four-game slide Friday, Ekblad will likely have a say in it as he was medically cleared Wednesday to return from a concussion he sustained Jan. 10.
When the Panthers play host to the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks on Friday, Ekblad is expected to be back on the ice.
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Coincidentally or not, the Panthers haven’t won since Ekblad played — their victory at Edmonton was the final win in their 12-game run.
The Panthers are 0-3-1 with Ekblad out of the lineup.
“I didn’t think we were going to miss him that much but we did,” Jaromir Jagr said.
“Not only is he great defensively, but he helps offensively. That’s what you need when you’re losing a game. Everyone needs to help offensively. And he’s one of those guys who can do it.”
Ekblad, who turns 20 next month, took part in Wednesday’s full practice, including taking over as point man on the top power-play unit.
The Panthers have missed all facets of Ekblad’s game, from his strong defensive play to his offensive push.
“We’ve missed everything,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “He’s a 19-year-old kid but means a lot to our team obviously.”
Florida was without defensemen Willie Mitchell and Erik Gudbranson on Wednesday, so having Ekblad back comes at a good time.
Gudbranson, who sustained what is being called a minor lower-back/rib injury Monday, is expected to practice Thursday and be in the lineup against Chicago.
Mitchell, however, is apparently suffering from some lingering issues and might not play against the Blackhawks.
“It’s possible, but I’ll know more after practice and meetings,” Gallant said. “That’s part of hockey; you have guys banged up and other guys step in who are fresh.”
Ekblad, the reigning rookie of the year, was boarded by Edmonton’s Matt Hendricks early in the third period, driven face-first into the glass.
The cheap hit apparently was retribution for the open-ice hit Gudbranson put on Edmonton star Taylor Hall late in the second period.
Hendricks was suspended three games for the hit and fought Gudbranson in the early stages of Monday’s 4-2 victory over the Panthers in Sunrise.
“The department of player safety takes care of what they take care of,” Ekblad said of Hendricks’ suspension. “My job is to play hockey; if they felt that was necessary, that’s their job, not mine.”
Ekblad said after leaving the ice in Edmonton, he passed all concussion tests and was allowed to come back and finish the game. Ekblad surprisingly played three shifts after heading into the locker room.
It was on the bus ride to the Edmonton airport after the game when Ekblad started feeling the effects of the hit.
“That’s very typical,” he said.
Ekblad started working out later in the week and began skating last Saturday.
“I feel good right now; a lot of people have been helping me,” Ekblad said. “I feel prepared to play at any time. The biggest thing to focus on is I’m better and I’m ready to play.”
▪ Gallant hasn’t been happy with the slumping power play and demonstrated that verbally during Wednesday’s practice as he yelled at both units.
“He always looks like he’s ticked off,” Jagr said. “Look at him on the bench. He’s an emotional guy.”
The Panthers haven’t scored a power-play goal since Brandon Pirri did so against the Rangers on Jan. 2 and have gone 0-23 with the man-advantage since.
“We’re trying out some new things and I wanted to get through to them,” Gallant said. “You give them the message. Details are a big part of it.”
Said Jonathan Huberdeau: “We have to come back to our game. It’s his job to push us. It’s our job to respond.”
▪ Gallant said having Stanley Cup finalists Chicago and Tampa Bay on consecutive nights “should be fun” and “should be awesome” as he hopes the challenge really gets his team’s attention as they aim to break their losing streak.
“I think I would rather play someone else than the Stanley Cup champions,” Jagr said with a grin to a large media gathering, which included two ESPN reporters.
“But if Coach said that, I guess he knows more than I do. They’re a very good team. Of course, it’s going to be a big challenge. But I don’t think we overlook anyone.”
▪ Gallant said his team isn’t getting down on itself because of the recent losing streak.
The team remains atop the Atlantic Division and although Detroit and Tampa Bay are rapidly gaining ground, Florida is still in front.
“We’re in a great spot today even if we’re disappointed with the past four games,” he said.
“I was a little ticked with the way we played the last number of games, but in hindsight, we’re in a pretty good spot. No one predicted we would be in first in the division, no one predicted us to be sixth in the entire league. We just need to press the reset button and get back at it.”