In today's Baptist Health Practice Notebook, Florida's top-defensive pairing looks strong, players react to some unique scheduling, and rookie Eetu Luostarinen pulls double duty.
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - When the Florida Panthers opened their training camp, it came as no surprise that defensemen MacKenzie Weegar and Aaron Ekblad were reunited on the blue line.
After all, the duo was exceptional during the regular season, both as a pair and in terms of their individual statistics. In 67 games, Ekblad set career-highs in points (41) and assists (36), while Weegar, despite being limited to just 45 games, reached new highs in goals (7) and points (18).
And although it's been four months since they shared the ice, the pair's chemistry is undeniable.
"They have a good rapport," Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said following Wednesday's practice at the Panthers IceDen. "It seems like they both enjoy playing with one another. They're active in the attack. I think there's movement in their own zone. They read off one another. They're active offensively exiting the zone. I think they give a little physicality in our own end."
In addition to their offensive numbers, the pair is often tasked with shutting down the opposing team's top forward lines, which they also exceled at. In the 553:10 of ice time they shared the ice at 5-on-5 during the regular season, the opposition was outscored by a solid 33-24 margin.
Ekblad leads the team in average ice time per game (22:59), while Weegar ranks third (20:07).
"They've got a nice little thing going with one another where they push each other in a good way," Quenneville said. "They're effective at eating up minutes and getting good matchups as well. When they've been together and been healthy, it's been a real good pair for us."
Asked what makes the pair tick, Weegar said the roots of their relationship start off the ice.
"Our success starts outside of the rink, actually," said Weegar, who is in his third full season with the Panthers. "We get along great outside of the rink. When we're back together, it's kind of just two buddies playing hockey together. We're very comfortable together."
Thanks to that comfort, the two blueliners have been able to maintain a valuable open dialogue.
"We're not afraid to get in each other's ear about something," Weegar said.
Heading into the Stanley Cup Qualifier, the pair are expected to continue playing major minutes in key situations for the Panthers during their best-of-five series against the New York islanders.
The good news? Ekblad and Weegar were incredibly effective against the Islanders this season.
Over the three games they manned the blue line together against New York, the pair didn't surrender a single goal over 38:52 of ice time at 5-on-5, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. During that same time, the Panthers also outshot the Islanders by a lopsided 20-13 margin.
Moving forward, Weegar thinks the pair is capable of replicating that success in the postseason.
"I think we're going to be prepared," Weegar said. "We've been getting a lot of ice time together during the regular season. Now in practices we're kind of starting from where we left off."
WAKE UP TO HOCKEY
The Panthers aren't complaining about their lack of primetime coverage right now.
When the NHL revealed start times for the first three games of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers on Tuesday, Weegar said he didn't hear any complaints from his teammates despite the fact the Panthers weren't scheduled to play in a single game before the sun sets on the East Coast.
After opening up the series against the Islanders at 4 p.m. on Aug. 1, Games 2 and 3 will get underway at noon on Aug. 4 and 5, respectively. The times for Games 4 and 5 are still TBD.
"I think we're looking forward to that," Weegar said. "We're going to have the fresh ice those back-to-back skates. We're going to wake up and play hockey. Sometimes when we play at 7 p.m., we're thinking about the game all day and have to take a pre-game nap. Now, we can just go, wake up and play hockey. I think it's going to work out in our favor."
Jonathan Huberdeau agrees, noting that the 4 p.m. start in Game 1 will be especially nice.
"You can sleep in and after a big win you can have a nice dinner," Huberdeau said.
The good ice and extra rest certainly can't hurt, but it's not the only reason the Panthers are looking forward to their the pre-lunch puck drops in Games 2 and 3. As the first games of the day, they don't have to worry at all about any games ahead of them that could run a bit late.
"I think we're fine," Quenneville said. "I don't mind playing afternoon games. At least with those early games at 12 o'clock we know we're going to start on time. That'll be effective in that way."
EXHIBITION WITH TAMPA
The Panthers can't seem to escape their cross-state rivals.
In their one and only tune-up before opening up their best-of-five series against the Islanders in the Stanley Cup Qualifier, the Panthers will face off against -- and feel free to stop me if you've heard this one before -- the Tampa Bay Lightning in an exhibition game on Wednesday, July 29.
"We're used to playing exhibition games against them," Huberdeau chuckled. "It's just one more. Like I said, it doesn't matter the team we're playing, we're going to focus on the Islanders. It's just to get back and play a real game. It's going to be good before we start the real thing."
Seemingly stuck to each other when it comes to scheduling, the Sunshine State squads have already clashed seven times during the 2019-20 season, including five straight games (three to close the preseason followed by two in the regular season) to start their respective campaigns.
No love lost between them, the teams combined for 110 penalty minutes in those seven games.
"We've had our battles over the years," Weegar said of the Bolts. "They're obviously a great team. They're fast, they're skilled. It's going to get us prepared for the Islanders, for sure."
DOUBLE DUTY FOR LUOSTARINEN
Eetu Luostarinen is likely going to be a little sore tomorrow.
With Noel Acciari taking a maintenance day, the 21-year-old rookie moved up from Group 2 to practice with Group 1 during today's practice. Pulling double duty, he then decided to stay on the ice to practice again with Owen Tippett, Chase Priskie and Sam Montembeault in Group 2.
Even though it's only been a few days, Quenneville has been impressed with the young Finn.
"We feel that he has a lot of nice things that we appreciate," Quenneville aid. "He's only 21 years old. The upside is in a real good place. He seems like he has real good hockey sense. He has the puck and has a real good feel for where he is around the rink."
Acquired as part of a mega deal with Carolina at the trade deadline in February, Luostarinen, a second-round pick (42nd overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft, put up good numbers during his first professional season in 2019-20. In 49 games in the AHL, he tallied eight goals and 17 assists.
Making his NHL debut in November, he recorded one assist in eight games with the Hurricanes.
"Getting to know him a little bit as we go along here, I can see some progression there in his game at a young stage," Quenneville said. "We'll find places for him to play. He looks like one of those guys that's only going to get better with time, strength and size."
SONK IN THE SHOOTOUT?
Here's an equation for you: Sonk + Shootout = Epic.
There's no question that the goal of the day belongs to Keith Yandle. Check it out in the tweet below!
WEDNESDAY'S PRACTICE LINES (GROUP 1)
Frank Vatrano - Aleksander Barkov - Evgenii Dadonov
Jonathan Huberdeau - Erik Haula - Mike Hoffman
Lucas Wallmark - Brian Boyle - Brett Connolly
Colton Sceviour - Dominic Toninato - Mark Pysyk
Aleksi Saarela - Eetu Luostarinen - Dryden Hunt
MacKenzie Weegar - Aaron Ekblad
Brady Keeper - Josh Brown
Keith Yandle - Mike Matheson
Riley Stillman - Anton Stralman
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