David J. Neal

David J. Neal: Aaron Ekblad’s return gives boost to Florida Panthers in win over Blackhawks

Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) is congratulated by teammates after scoring a goal against the Chicago Blackhawks during the second period Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, in Sunrise, Fla.
Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) is congratulated by teammates after scoring a goal against the Chicago Blackhawks during the second period Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, in Sunrise, Fla. AP

The slumping Panthers, coughing up turnovers and points the past two weeks, hoped to get well against 2010, 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup champion Chicago on Friday. That’s a little like hoping to cure sex addiction by going to Hedonism.

Or, it would be if the Panthers weren’t getting the franchise lynchpin back. Any question as to the Panthers’ most important player aside from the goalie ended Friday.

Second-year defenseman Aaron Ekblad returned to the lineup in Friday’s 4-0 win after missing four games with a concussion. The Panthers went 0-4 in the games Ekblad missed. Their last loss with him in the lineup: Dec. 12.

OK, several chemicals besides Ekblad’s return went into Friday’s good medicine. After two solid days of practice, the Panthers made fewer bad decisions with the puck, especially high in the offensive zone. They won more one-on-one battles along the boards. Just as the Panthers moseyed through a 6-0 loss to Calgary the game after their 12-game winning streak ended, Chicago looked as if it had limited interest Friday after a 12-game win streak ended Thursday night in Tampa.

But don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Panthers looked like a different team with their best defenseman able to play 20:32, 24 shifts, pick up a goal and end the night with a plus-2 plus/minus rating.

The main miserableness during the four-game losing streak came at even strength and on the power play. Ekblad’s less a part of the penalty kill and it knocked off eight of nine power plays in those four games, allowing only the four-on-three overtime goal in Vancouver. But the Panthers got outscored 15-5 otherwise with the power play failing on a dirty dozen over the four games.

Friday’s game didn’t see the end of the power-play famine, but the man advantage units looked much more fertile than the previous four games.

See, Ekblad’s absence emphasized the truth of the 23-year-old adage “the fool uses the wrong fork when the wise man’s not even at the table.”

The two phrases I find myself muttering/moaning/snarling most often when watching a game are “Shoot the puck!” and “Get it going!” The former Ekblad did on his goal, a right-circle slapper off a Chicago turnover. Ekblad fired at Pulp Fiction-speed before Chicago goalie Scott Darling could get set.

The latter refers to puck movement out of the back, especially out of the defensive zone. A skilled, skating defenseman like Ekblad does that so well, the opposing forecheck dies before conception. Pass the puck out, skate the puck up, doesn’t matter. It’s gone.

That cuts your defensive zone time. That’s less time for your opponent to create scoring chances or draw penalties to stick you on the penalty kill. Ever notice how often a turnover on what should’ve been a smooth breakout leads to a goal, penalty or extended shift in the defensive zone? Extended shifts in the defensive zone, by the way, not only build opposing momentum, but wear out your skaters when they get trapped on the ice for augmented shifts.

In the fluid games, hockey and soccer, all acts produce a two-pronged effect. While the Ekblads kill a forecheck, they bring the attack to life with speed out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone. Speed through the neutral zone means either chances off the rush or an opportunity to get the forecheck going. All those turnovers, penalties and chances aren’t happening to you in your zone. You’re inflicting them on your opponent in their zone.

It’s why I’ve never blamed the Panthers for taking Jay Bouwmeester instead of power forward Rick Nash when the locals had the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft. Nash gives you finish. Bouwmeester gives you start. You’ll note which comes first.

(Now, that second 2002 first-round pick, trading up from 10th overall to ninth overall to take center Petr Taticek, who never played an NHL game…that helped put the franchise in a coma).

The common thread in Edmonton’s 2006 Stanley Cup Finalist, Anaheim’s 2007 Stanley Cup winner and Philadelphia’s 2010 Stanley Cup Finalist? Defenseman Chris Pronger. Detroit won a Stanley Cup after captain and center of their Dead Puck Era teams, Steve Yzerman, retired. Number of post-Original Six era Stanley Cups Detroit won without defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom? Zero.

Hockey’s a game of transition, but defensemen like Ekblad turn it into a game of possession. Off the opening faceoff, Ekblad fired a perfect dump-in to start the forecheck. The Panthers had Chicago backpedaling the whole shift, which ended with Chicago’s Andrew Shaw taking a hooking penalty.

That shift set the tone for the period, after which the Panthers led 3-0. At even strength, Chicago got limited to quick drop-ins on the Panthers defensive zone.

Roberto Luongo stopped all 27 Chicago shots. Brian Campbell had a goal, was plus two and logged a team-high 24:12 of ice time in 25 shifts. But guess who got the Kevin Spacey shirt afterwards? There’s a reason.

David J. Neal: 305-376-3559, @DavidJNeal

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