Oliver Ekman-Larsson is 100 percent.
The Coyotes captain feels better than he did when the hiatus hit in March.
"I went back to Sweden right after we paused the season," said Ekman-Larsson, who returned to Arizona two weeks ago. "Sweden kept everything open. So, it wasn't hard at all to stay in shape and skate.
"I think it means a lot that we got a couple months off," he continued. "I can speak for myself: I had knee surgery right before the season started, and I didn't really get back to 100 percent. So, these two months and a half have been really good for my knees. I've been able to get stronger and faster."
Ekman-Larsson quarantined for a week upon his return. He was tested for COVID-19 numerous times before joining teammates for small-group practices at Gila River Arena.
"Just seeing the guys around the rink, it's good to see all of them again," he said. "We've been away from each other for a couple months here, so I think everybody is excited. But, at the same time, this has been bigger than hockey. I think we took the right approach to pause the season."
The attention now: preparing for playoff-style hockey. Ekman-Larsson was a member of the 2011-12 Coyotes team that advanced to the Western Conference Finals.
"It just feels like it's a different game," he said. "Everybody feels faster and feels stronger. It's another level. I'm glad that I got the chance to be in the playoffs before. There are so many good teams, too, and you never know when you're going to have the chance. So, I'm very excited to be on that side again. It's going to be fun to really get that feeling again."
His first taste of playoff hockey occurred during his first full NHL season. It was a growth experience.
"I think our young group is going to learn a lot from being in those kinds of games," he said. "That's going to benefit us going forward. So, that's going to be fun to see how we really react to that kind of playoff hockey."
With numerous Stanley Cup champions on the roster, Ekman-Larsson feels experience will be vital. He already sees the effect of the challenge.
"I feel like they've been telling all of the guys to really put in the work here," he said. "To improve our strength, or get faster, or work on our shots. I think it's all the details. 'Let's really dig in and try to do something special.' I feel like they have been leading the pack with that kind of stuff.
"Watching the guys and being around the guys for a couple of days here, it looks like everybody really put in the work," he said. I'm really excited for that. Time will tell, I guess. I think it's really important that we get a good start on that first day of camp. We'll go as hard as we can and do whatever we can to be prepared."
Video: ARI@OTT: Ekman-Larsson nets Hall's pass for PPG
Training camp is scheduled to start July 13. The Coyotes will travel to their "hub city" less than two weeks later. Ekman-Larsson isn't worried about the location. Edmonton is the leading candidate to host the Western Conference.
"For me, it doesn't really matter," he said. "I don't have any family that I have to move around or be away from, so it's pretty easy for me to just pack my stuff and my gear and just head to Edmonton. It's just going to be really fun to get started up again and get going here. It's going to be tough the first week of camp when you're trying to get up to speed and everything, but I think it will go pretty quick because everybody looks like they're in shape."
Game location may not present a challenge, but an empty arena?
"It's going to be a big, big difference," he said. "I feel like we're probably going to have to help each other, to pump each other up a little bit before we go out [on the ice] or in between shifts. We're so used to playing in front of sold-out buildings. I think that's going to be the toughest thing, to come out and not see any fans."
The bottom line is the Coyotes have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. The qualifying rounds are scheduled to begin August 1.
"It's very exciting," he said. "I mean, we were kind of behind a little bit when the pause happened. So, for us to get a chance and show that we're good enough to be a playoff team, that's huge for our group. Moving forward, it's going to be tough games, but we'll just focus on Nashville right now. It'll be some really fun games against a tough organization."
That's not to say he didn't make use of the interruption, in addition to getting healthy.
"I stayed [in Arizona] for a couple of weeks over the pause, but I didn't really feel comfortable being here without my family. That's when you need your family and you need to be around your family, so that was really nice that I got the chance to go home and spend some time with them and be around them. I just felt really good being around them and talking to them."
That time also allowed him to reconnect with his brother, Kevin, who played for the Coyotes' AHL affiliate Tucson Roadrunners for two seasons (2017-19).
"He's doing well. He's playing a lot of paddle tennis back home. We built the courts, so that's pretty much what we've been doing."
Back in Arizona, Ekman-Larsson is ready to focus on the here and now.
"We have the chance to do something special," he said. "That's how we look at it."
Lead Photo Credit: Kevin Anggara - Arizona Coyotes // Footer Photo Credit: Norm Hall - Arizona Coyotes