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Ekblad out 12 weeks for Panthers after surgery for left-leg fracture

Defenseman was taken off on stretcher against Stars on Sunday

by Alain Poupart / Independent Correspondent

Aaron Ekblad will be out 12 weeks for the Florida Panthers after the defenseman had surgery Monday on a fracture in his left leg.

"Overwhelmed by the love and support of my family and teammates, my peers and the Florida Panthers fan base and organization," Ekblad said in a post on Twitter. "I appreciate each and every one of you.

"Thank you Dallas Stars for everything last night. I'm so grateful for your help. To everyone who has reached out, I see you. Thank you!"

Ekblad left the ice on a stretcher in the second period of a 4-1 win against the Stars at American Airlines Center in Dallas on Sunday.

"To be without a player of Aaron's caliber and character is an irreplaceable loss to our hockey club," Florida general manager Bill Zito said. "Aaron is an incredibly driven and talented young player and a tremendous leader for our team. He has the heartfelt support of our organization, his teammates and fans as we wish him the best in his recovery and his eventual return. Despite Aaron's absence from our lineup, we are confident in our group's resiliency and motivation as we move forward."

The 25-year-old will be out the rest of the regular season and the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. June 21 is 12 weeks from Monday; the final day of the regular season is scheduled to be May 11.

Ekblad got his left leg caught under his body after being checked by Stars defenseman Esa Lindell midway through the second and immediately clutched his left knee. He left on a stretcher after medical personnel put a long brace on his left leg.

"It was pretty tough," Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau said after the game. "It's obviously tough to see a teammate, a good friend, go down like that. He was and he's probably going to be out for a while. It's not cool obviously, but it's part of the game.

"You hear him scream too. I mean, it must have hurt so bad. Obviously it comes and gets you. He's a great guy, a great teammate. It [stinks]. It's part of the game, a bad break. It's going to be tough to be without him, but we're going to be there for him. We're going to support him."

Ekblad has scored 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in 35 games and leads the Panthers with an average ice time of 25:05 per game. He had an assist to help Florida build a 3-1 lead at the time of his injury.

"I think he was great this year," Florida coach Joel Quenneville said. "I think he had so many games where he was dominant defensively, but his offensive contribution, joining the attack down, added a different dimension to our power play, significant minutes, matchups, controlling the outcomes of games. You couldn't ask for anything more. He's improved. He stepped up this year in his development and has been a big factor."

Quenneville said defenseman Gustav Forsling will move up to replace Ekblad on Florida's top defense pair with MacKenzie Weegar. Forsling, who was claimed off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 9, has scored five points (two goals, three assists) in 22 games this season. He is averaging 18:56 of ice time per game, third among Florida defenseman, behind Ekblad and Weegar (22:12).

"We're fortunate," Quenneville said. "He's coming on here as a defender that's quick and gets to people and closes space very, very fast and turns to transition from defense to offense, can evade pressure off the forecheck as well. He's done a lot of good things for us. He's got a big shot as well. He's come in and really, really done a nice job for us and helped out our team and our depth on our back end as well."

The Panthers (22-9-4) swept a two-game set at Dallas and are third in the Discover Central Division, one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes and two behind the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning. The top four teams in the division will qualify for the playoffs.

"Right now's not the day to get excited, [but] at the same time I still think there's a group here that has the ability to find ways to win hockey games," Quenneville said. "We need to find out what it's like to win in the playoffs, and that acquired taste is something we've got to earn to acquire and to learn how to handle it. We need to get that lesson and we look forward to finding out as best we can." independent correspondent Alain Poupart contributed to this report

Tweet from @Ekblad5FLA: Overwhelmed by the love and support of my family and teammates, my peers and the Florida Panthers fan base and organization. I appreciate each and every one of you ������

Tweet from @Ekblad5FLA: Thank you @DallasStars for everything last night. I���m so grateful for your help. To everyone who has reached out, I see you. Thank you!

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