CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- After missing the past four games with an upper-body injury, defenseman Aaron Ekblad
is expected to make his return to Florida’s lineup when the Panthers host the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday at the BB&T Center.
“I feel good now,” said Ekblad, who was cleared to play on Wednesday. “There were a lot of people helping me and on my side to help me get back in. I feel good and I feel prepared to play at any time… The biggest thing to focus on now is the fact that I’m better and ready to play.”
Ekblad, 19, has been out of the lineup since Edmonton Oilers forward Matt Hendricks sent the young defenseman careening face-first into the boards during the third period of a 2-1 victory on Jan. 10.
There was no penalty on the play for the hit, but Hendricks would later be suspended three games by the NHL's Department of Player Safety for his involvement in the incident.
"The department of player safety takes care of what they take care of,'' Ekblad said of Hendricks' suspension. "My job is to play hockey.”
The Panthers went 0-3-1 with Ekblad out of the lineup as the team struggled to produce on offense, scoring just five goals in their past four games.
“It’s always tough to sit out,” said Ekblad, who missed only one game last season due to the flu. “My goal every year is to play 82 games. I really want to play as many games in this league before somebody tells me I can’t. It’s tough to sit out and watch the team lose.”
Ekblad, the league’s reigning rookie of the year, has tallied nine goals and 10 assists in 42 games this season for Florida, which currently holds first place in the Atlantic Division.
HUBERDEAU’S PENALTY-DRAWING PROWESS
Although he is mainly known for his ability to dish out assists, Jonathan Huberdeau has quietly become Florida’s foremost authority in another, somewhat unheralded, statistic – drawing penalties.
The 22-year-old winger currently leads the Panthers with 21 penalties drawn through 46 games this season and is well on his way to leading the team in that category for the fourth consecutive year.
“I’m just trying to work as hard as I can,” said Huberdeau, who has drawn 91 penalties in 242 career NHL games. “It’s an important thing because it gets the power play going and usually can win you some games.”
Initially unaware of his penalty-drawing prowess, Huberdeau doesn’t know exactly why he has such a knack for sending opponents to the sin bin, but believes it more than likely has something to do with the energy he puts into every shift.
“I try to keep my feet moving a little bit to get something going,” said Huberdeau. “When you work hard you draw penalties. I guess it’s been happening a lot since I got here. I guess I’ve got to keep doing that.”
BARKOV TURNS UP THE HEAT
A pair of South Florida superstars met for the first time on Tuesday when Panthers center Aleksander Barkov snapped a photo with Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade outside the locker room at the AmericanAirlines Arena.
“I felt like a little kid over there,” said Barkov, who attended his first Heat game last season. “It was my first time going into their locker room and everything was like two times bigger than an NHL locker room. It was very cool.”
Barkov’s visit to the game wasn’t purely for personal reasons, however, as the 20-year-old played host to 12-year-old Aleksi Soini, an aspiring junior hockey player from Finland whose career was cut short after being diagnosed with brain cancer two years ago.
Barkov's brother, Juri, and father, Aleksander Sr., accompanied Aleski and his father on their trip from Finland to Florida and will join them as they cheer for the Panthers during all four games of the current homestand at BB&T Center.