FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- After 14 seasons in the NHL, Oliver Ekman-Larsson fully appreciates the opportunity he has with the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Final.

With the Panthers tied 2-2 with the New York Rangers in the best-of-7 series heading back to Madison Square Garden in New York for Game 5 on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ESPN, SN, TVAS, CBC), the 32-year-old defenseman is two wins away from his first trip to a Stanley Cup Final.

“That’s why we play,” he said earlier this week.  “I think you start realizing that as you get older. I think coming in as a young guy you’re just happy to be in the League. You don’t really realize it. You’re just trying to stay around and stick around. Now, you want to win and that’s what it’s all about.

“So to get this chance to be in the playoffs and in the conference final, I’m just having a blast with everything.”

Playing alongside Dmitry Kulikov on Florida's veteran third defense pair and quarterbacking their second power-play unit from the point, Ekman-Larsson has four points (one goal, three assists) averaging 15:09 in ice time in 15 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

“He’s been unreal for us,” Panthers defenseman Gustav Forsling said. “I played with him early (in the season) and he played a big [role], ran the first PP unit and he was great.”

A veteran of 982 NHL regular-season games, Ekman-Larsson had played in only 25 playoff games prior to this season, but that included one previous trip to a conference final. That was in 2012 with the Phoenix Coyotes, who lost in five games to the Los Angeles Kings. That was his second season in the NHL and first experience in the postseason.

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He didn’t take the ice in the playoffs again until 2020, when the Arizona Coyotes played in the Western Conference bubble in Edmonton with no fans in attendance because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Coyotes defeated the Nashville Predators in four games in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers before losing to the Colorado Avalanche in five games in the first round.

“I was in the bubble, but you can’t really compare that,” he said. “That was a little bit different.”

One season into an eight-year contract with Arizona, Ekman-Larsson didn’t know that would be his last taste of postseason hockey for a while. He was traded to the Vancouver Canucks after the Coyotes missed the playoffs in 2020-21 and endured two disappointing seasons and breaking his foot twice in less than a year before having the final four seasons on his contract bought out last June 16.

“I didn’t see it coming,” said Ekman-Larsson, who missed the final 27 games with Vancouver last season after breaking his foot the second time on Feb. 15. “I’d been hurt. I got hurt the first time at world championship (in 2022) and kind of had to force it to be healthy for training camp the following year, so I was kind of rushed a little bit and was feeling the injury going into the year, and that’s never good. Then we were struggling as a team and I was struggling along with the team, so it was a tough year.

“But it’s the business side of things. They felt like they needed to do that move and you move on, and you try to redeem yourself.”

The chance at redemption came with the one-year contract he signed with Florida on July 1. After reaching the Stanley Cup Final last season before losing in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Panthers knew they were going to begin this season without two of their top-four defensemen with Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour each recovering from shoulder surgery.

Ekman-Larsson played on top pairs for much of his career and Florida thought he could temporarily fill that role until Ekblad and Montour returned and then shift back to the third pair.

“When you know that it’s Montour and Ekblad coming back, just based on their roles, they’re going to step back into their roles,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. "So he (Ekman-Larsson) understood that when he came here, but he also felt he hadn’t been healthy for two years and he was out in February of last year and hadn’t played, so he actually had his first summer of training where he wasn’t rehabbing, he was training. 

“That he could come back and reestablish himself as a defenseman, that was the opportunity that we had for him, and he certainly made the most of it.”

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With Ekblad and Montour each missing Florida’s first 16 games this season, Ekman-Larsson had 10 points (four goals, six assists), a plus-2 rating and averaged 23:51 in ice time, second on the team behind Forsling at 23:56. After Ekblad and Montour each returned Nov. 17, Ekman-Larsson moved to the third pair and had 22 points (five goals, 17 assists) and a plus-8 rating in 64 games over the remainder of the season, averaging 17:02 in ice time, fifth among Panthers defensemen.

Though Ekman-Larsson acknowledged playing fewer minutes was challenging because “it’s harder to stay in the game” mentally and physically, he was prepared for it and happy to accept that role.

“I knew that coming in,” he said. “Whatever the teams needs me to do, if it’s playing five minutes or 25, it doesn’t really change anything. I’m going to lay it on the line every single shift that I get out there.” 

Ekman-Larsson said other teams expressed interest after he was bought out. What interested him most in Florida, far beyond his role, was joining a team that had a chance to win the Stanley Cup.

“With everything happening last summer, that’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I wanted to do for a long time,” he said. “So it was just a good fit here, especially with what the guys in here did last year in the playoffs and I saw some room for improvement, too. So I felt that I could help this team get to the next level as well.”

Healthy this season after having a full offseason to train, Ekman-Larsson has done that and given the Panthers the luxury of having a former top-pair defenseman playing on their third pair.   

“To me, he looks more set in this system, more mobile,” ESPN analyst and former NHL forward Ray Ferraro said. “There was so much expected of him (in Vancouver), and physically he wasn’t able to get there. He had that foot [injury] for a couple years. It’s funny when it works out for somebody somewhere.

“You won’t find anybody in Vancouver to say a bad word about him. He’s got a great aura around him. He’s just a great person to have around.”

Ekman-Larsson believes the move to Florida has been mutually beneficial.

“I’m hungry to win and, with they experience that they got last year, I think that can help me,” he said. “I’ve been in the League a long time. I don’t have a lot of playoff games, but I know what it takes to play in this league and hopefully I help the younger guys and I help the guys that were already here.”