CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - MacKenzie Weegar said he was caught off guard a bit when he saw his name next to Aaron Ekblad's on the lineup sheet heading into last Friday's game in Buffalo.
Despite being seated only a couple stalls apart in the locker room, he hadn't worked too much with Ekblad on the ice. Over his first two seasons in the league, the duo was deployed together in games very sparingly, sharing the ice for less than 150 minutes since the 2017-18 campaign.
Still, Weegar said that he and Ekblad were excited at the prospect of their new pairing.
"We were both a little shocked and made a couple jokes," Weegar, cracking a smile, said when asked about the roster change following Wednesday's practice at the Panthers IceDen. "But that's what [the coaches] wanted. We went to work and did what we had to do together."
Just a few games in, that hard work is already generating good results.
Coming together at the start of a three-game road trip Friday in Buffalo, Weegar and Ekblad found chemistry almost immediately. Helping the Panthers pick up four out of a possible six points in the standings, they combined for one goal and four assists throughout the journey.
"It's been good so far," Ekblad said of the pairing. "We're just trying to take care of business. Obviously we want to play defense first, but with [Weegar's] ability and his shot, and stuff like that, we're both trying to get pucks to the net and create some chances in the offensive zone."
Making an impact in all three zones, the duo also did a great job of helping push possession in Florida's favor whenever they were on the ice. During the 51:04 they spent together at 5-on-5 during the three-game trek, the Panthers outshot (32-15) and outscored (4-2) the opposition.
That ability to move the puck up and down the ice has caught Joel Quenneville's attention.
"I really like the way they move together," the Panthers head coach said. "As far as coming out of their own end together, they're transporting the puck and making a lot of direct plays. I think their activity, not just on entries, but in the offensive zone, their movement on the point, shot selection. I think they're really helping sustain our cycle game as well.
"Defensively, their gaps have been tight. They've been good through the neutral zone defending. In our own end, they've been good reading plays and killing plays, and activating off what they're doing in that area. They've been really effective in playing some big minutes and big assignments. They're getting it done."
In Monday afternoon's 6-4 win in New Jersey that closed out the trip, the unit was dominant. Ekblad had a pair of assists and skated a game-high 25:30, while Weegar scored the game-tying goal and had the primary assist on Noel Acciari's game-winning goal in the third period.
When asked about the give-and-take relationship between defensive partners, Ekblad said he's already taken a few elements from Weegar's game and begun implementing them into his own.
"He's so patient with the puck. It's fun to watch," Ekblad said. "I try and incorporate that into my game whenever I can and try and create some nice stability for our unit. I let him do what he does best, which is make head-fakes, skate with the puck and move with the puck."
Likewise, Weegar has also been learning from Ekblad.
"He moves the puck well," Weegar said. "He can make plays on his own. I don't really have to worry about him turning the puck over. He's a great player. It's fun watching him play. He's been positive with me and telling me to make plays, too. We've just been working off each other."
Looking ahead, the defensive duo plans to continue making the most out of this new opportunity.
"We've known each other for a long time now," Weegar said. "We both never thought we'd end up playing together, but here we are. We're just enjoying it."
No one saw more ice time than Ekblad on the team's recent road trip.
As of this morning, the 23-year-old blueliner's 25:24 of ice time per game currently ranks sixth in the league and is almost two minutes more than the career-high 23:39 he averaged in 2018-19.
"In the last couple years playing against top lines has been different, it's been tough," Ekblad said of his increasing responsibility. "It's something to prepare for every single night, playing against some of the best players in the world. I'd like to see that keep continuing to grow. As a player, I think I'm getting better at handling it. I think the new coaching staff is doing a great job."
Ekblad has skated more than 25 minutes in four out of the last five games, including a season-high 28:44 during Saturday's shootout loss on Long Island and 27:04 on Friday night in Buffalo.
"That was tough, there's no doubt about it," Ekblad said, pointing to the game against the Islanders. "Once the end of overtime is coming there and you're playing two-minute shifts against some pretty good players on the Island there, it was tough. In terms of managing that, it's trying to keep good gaps, trying to be calm and cool in the defensive zone and short shifts."
After playing three games in four nights - including a pair of shootouts - Ekblad said that having a few extra days off before hosting the undefeated Colorado Avalanche on Friday will be "huge."
"Big off day yesterday," he said. "We try to take advantages of those the best we can."
SNOW DAY IN SUNRISE
The Panthers will have a chance to push their point streak to four games against Colorado.
Playing tonight in Pittsburgh, the Avalanche currently stand as the only undefeated team left in the league at 5-0-0. The main reason for that hot stat has been their offense, which is currently scoring the 4.40 goals per game - the second-ranked offense in the league behind Nashville.
Preparing to defend BB&T Center, Quenneville said he's looking to the challenge ahead.
"We should expect to be fresh," he said. "They play tonight, and they're off to the best start in the game. It should be a good test for us Friday."
WEDNESDAY'S PRACTICE LINES
Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Evgenii Dadonov
Mike Hoffman - Vincent Trocheck - Brett Connolly
Frank Vatrano - Henrik Borgstrom - Denis Malgin
Dryden Hunt - Noel Acciari - Colton Sceviour
MacKenzie Weegar - Aaron Ekblad
Mike Matheson - Anton Stralman
Keith Yandle - Josh Brown
Extras: Jayce Hawryluk, Mark Pysyk