CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Riley Stillman's biggest present arrived a day early.
Back home in Peterborough, Ontario to celebrate the holidays with his family, the 21-year-old defenseman got the news on Christmas Eve that he'd been recalled by the Florida Panthers.
"It was like an early Christmas present," Stillman said after Friday's practice at the Panthers IceDen, his first since the recall. "It was pretty exciting. My family was happy, and I got to share the news with them on that day. I'm here and ready to work. I want to try and help the team."
Shortly after getting the call, Stillman said he had to think fast. After all, the holidays are one of the toughest times to travel, and he only had a few days to get down to Sunrise.
So, after what he describes as "36 hours or so" in Peterborough, he booked it to the closest airport in Toronto.
Stopping first back in Springfield, Mass., on Christmas Day to pick up that gear he'd been using while suiting up for Florida's AHL affiliate, he then flew straight to Fort Lauderdale on Thursday.
"I got all my stuff, packed and then left on boxing day," he said, showing no signs of fatigue.
A fourth-round pick (114th overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft, Stillman has become the primary call-up for the Panthers when they've needed an extra blueliner this season. Already his third recall of the season, he's played in four career games with Florida, including three so far in 2019-20.
In 25 games with AHL Springfield this season, he's registered three goals and three assists.
"There's room to improve and I want to get better every day," said Stillman, who uses his 6-foot-1, 196-pound frame to play a physical game. "Obviously being here with the big club helps with that. I want to continue to improve and then hopefully I'll carve out a role here that's full-time."
Panthers Head Coach Joel Quenneville believes Stillman is on the right track to achieving that goal.
"His gives us some presence," Quenneville said. "He's physically aware. I liked his practice today. He's improved as far as handling the puck. I think he's gotten more familiar with the pace and positionally aware… He's made some strides. We think that it's a matter of time before he stabilizes that spot and becomes an NHL-er."
Despite his age, Stillman's teammates have also been impressed with his maturity.
"He's tough," Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar said. "He has some big physicality to his game. He's sort of been a part of this team for a little bit now, so I know he's comfortable around us and we're comfortable with him. We trust him just as much as anyone back there."
With Aaron Ekblad out of action, Stillman hopes to get another chance to shine.
After exiting Monday's loss at Tampa Bay with an injury, Ekblad is expected to sit out both games of this weekend's back-to-back, but per Quenneville's media availability today, is expected to travel on the club's upcoming four-game road trip.
Ekblad currently ranks first among Florida's defensemen in goals (5) and second in points (23).
"He's made some pretty good progress over the last few days," Quenneville said of Ekblad.
Stillman, however, isn't thinking about his current stint with the Panthers beyond the next game.
For as he's worked to get to get more time in the NHL, he's also learned to live in the moment.
"I think the biggest thing I've taken away from it is the mental side," Stillman said. "Up, down, it really doesn't matter. Wherever I am, I'm 100 percent there and trying to help the team win."
HAWRYLUK FEELS GREAT
Recalled by the Panthers from his conditioning stint with AHL Springfield on Dec. 23, Jayce Hawryluk was not limited at all during his first full practice back with the team this afternoon.
Working his way back after missing nearly two months, the 23-year-old forward had been sidelined since suffering an upper-body during a 4-3 overtime win at Colorado on Oct. 30.
"It's not the way I envisioned it, but that's the game of hockey," said Hawryluk, a second-round pick (32nd overall) in the 2014 NHL Draft. "Injuries happen, but I had a nice little conditioning stint down in Springfield. Now, I'm back here and ready to get going for the second half."
Prior to re-joining the Panthers, he tallied an assist in six games with the Thunderbirds.
"They were really good," Hawryluk said of his games with AHL Springfield. "Just handling the puck, playing lots of minutes and getting up to game-speed. It was good. I feel great now."
In eight games with Florida this season, he's has notched one goal, two assists and 16 hits.
"I thought he worked hard," Quenneville said of Hawryluk's practice. "He played six games down there. You certainly get your conditioning back, and with the physicality that he needs to bring it was good to get the rust off. Now that we've had a break, seeing him again in practice today I liked his pace and the way he worked. Right now he's working his way back into the lineup."
A BIG WEEKEND AHEAD
After three days off, the Panthers went a bit longer than usual during today's practice.
Taking time to brush up on all areas of the game, Quenneville put players through a series of high-intensity drills, including various segments focused on some 1-on-1 and 2-on-2 battles.
"You're off for a long length of time, so you need a little bit of work and feel," Quenneville said. "Whether it's physically getting involved or handling the pucks, I think [this practice] was a little bit of everything. It was both sides of it, offensively and defensively."
With wins in three of their last four games, the Panthers (18-13-5) will have a golden opportunity to move right back into a playoff spot this weekend with back-to-back contests against Atlantic Division foes Detroit and Montreal on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, at BB&T Center.
Florida currently trails the Canadiens by one point for third in the division with a game in hand.
"This is huge," Weegar said. "We're going to come out with a lot of compete and a lot of pace."
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