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Ekblad savors MSG visit, reunion with Kings' Pearson

by Mike G. Morreale

NEW YORK -- It was as if Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad was just one of the boys when he strolled into the locker room of the Los Angeles Kings following the team's morning skate in preparation for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

For Ekblad and fellow 2014 draft-eligible blue chip prospects Samuel Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs, Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice, Leon Draisaitl of the Prince Albert Raiders and Michael Dal Colle of the Oshawa Generals, it was a chance to experience all the pomp and circumstance that accompanies the Stanley Cup Playoffs this time in the season.

All five top prospects were flown into New York on Sunday and spent the day at Madison Square Garden on Monday. They were interviewed by Hockey Night in Canada's Don Cherry early in the morning, visited the locker room of each team after practice and were issued tickets to Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The Kings lead the best-of-7 series 2-0.

Ekblad, No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting's final list of draft-eligible North American skaters, appeared to be right at home when escorted to the Kings dressing room. There, he was reunited with former Barrie teammate Tanner Pearson and Barrie alumnus Kyle Clifford. He also exchanged a handshake with former Ontario Hockey League opponent Tyler Toffoli of the Ottawa 67's.

Pearson and Toffoli are currently linemates alongside second-line center Jeff Carter. Clifford plays left wing on the fourth line beside center Mike Richards.

"I was at Barrie in Aaron's first year there, and even though he entered the league as an underage player, he put up some impressive numbers; he's a special player," Pearson told "I think it's a given that he'll be a high draft pick since he's here with all those other great prospects. [Draft day] will be an exciting day for him. I went through it; he just has to take it all in."

When Pearson saw Ekblad, he immediately greeted him with a big hug and a smile. They exchanged a few laughs and several stories about the good old days in Barrie.

Ekblad, a 6-foot-3, 216-pound right-handed shot, was granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada to be eligible for the 2011 Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft as a 15-year-old. That's a year younger than the standard age of 16.

"Me and Aaron played together and we're pretty good friends," Pearson said. "We talk now and again and he wants to get where we are, so he just needs to take it all in and get any help where he needs it."

Ekblad was selected by the Colts with the No. 1 pick in 2011 and had 10 goals and 29 points in 63 games en route to earning OHL Rookie of the Year honors and being named to the OHL All-Rookie Team.

"When I first entered the league, I just wanted to turn that pressure into motivation and use it to my advantage to play well every day," Ekblad said.

Pearson, selected in the first round (No. 30) by the Kings in 2012, played two seasons in Barrie before turning professional.

Ekblad completed his third season with the Colts in 2013-14. He was named the OHL defenseman of the year after finishing with career highs in goals (23), assists (30), power-play goals (16), points (53) and penalty minutes (91). He also earned first-place finishes for best shot, hardest shot, best offensive defenseman and best defensive defenseman in the OHL Eastern Conference.

"I haven't seen Tanner in quite a while, so it was good to catch up," Ekblad said. "We talked earlier in May about getting together and hanging out, but couldn't unfortunately. He was great to me in my first year [in Barrie] and we had a lot of fun together. He was always one of the hardest working guys on our team. He was just hitting the peak of his career in the OHL when I joined the team, and it was pretty special to see that and have an opportunity to play with him."

Ekblad, who was in New York for the first time, acknowledged it was pretty special to witness both teams go through their routine on a game day. The talented defenseman is projected to be the first at his position off the draft board on June 27 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

He and the fellow prospects were introduced to Martin St. Louis, Derick Brassard, Rick Nash and Brad Richards of the Rangers and Pearson, Clifford, Toffoli, Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown of the Kings.

Ekblad was asked if he expects to be the No. 1 pick in the draft.

"There's always the chance that one of the five of us will go No. 1; you just don't know because it's such a tight draft," Ekblad said. "But wherever I get picked I'm going to go, and I want to make that team better next year and for many years after that. That's my goal and what I believe in, so I think I can do it."


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