SUNRISE, Fla. – Out since March 9 due to an injury, defenseman Aaron Ekblad will return to the lineup when the Florida Panthers host the New York Islanders at Amerant Bank Arena on Thursday.

Missing the last seven games, Ekblad, one half of the team’s top-defensive pairing, has produced 17 points (four goals, 13 assists), 55 blocks and a +26 plus/minus rating in 47 games this season.

“Ready to roll,” Panthers head coach Paul Maurice said.

In control of their own destiny, the Panthers (46-21-5) enter tonight’s matchup sitting just two points behind the Boston Bruins (42-17-15) for first place in the Atlantic Division with two games in hand.

On Tuesday, those two heavyweights faced off in a hard-fought battle in Sunrise.

Leading 3-2 in the third period on goals from Evan Rodrigues, Sam Reinhart and Carter Verhaeghe, the Panthers surrendered two goals in a span of 2:01 as the Bruins went on to claim a 4-3 win.

With no ice given up easily, the two teams combined for 91 hits.

“That was probably the most playoff-like game that we’ve had,” Panthers forward Sam Bennett said. “It was physical, chippy. I guess that’s what’s to be expected with two top teams going at it. Playoffs are just around the corner, so I’m sure you’re going to see more games like that.”

The second player in franchise history to hit the 50-goal mark, Reinhart leads the Panthers in goals (51) and points (84). Matthew Tkachuk ranks second in scoring with 79 points (23 goals, 56 assists), while Verhaeghe is third in points (70) and has lit the lamp in each of the last three games.

The top backup in the NHL this season, Anthony Stolarz, who’s won each of his last six starts, will get the nod in net against the Islanders. In 22 appearances this season, the 6-foot-6 veteran goaltender has posted a 14-5-2 record with a 1.97 goals-against average, .927 save percentage and one shutout.

With a chance to punch their ticket, the Panthers will clinch a playoff spot tonight with a win.

They can also clinch if they secure one point tonight and either of the following occurs: the Detroit Red Wings lose to the Hurricanes in any fashion, or the Philadelphia Flyers lose to the Montreal Canadiens in regulation. They can also clinch if the Red Wings lose to the Hurricanes in regulation.

“It’s just a matter of when or who we’re playing,” Bennett said when asked about locking down a place in the postseason. “We’re not really thinking about that. We’re just trying to get through these last 10 games playing the right way, doing all the right things to prepare ourselves for the playoffs.”

Six points out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with a record of 30-26-15, the Islanders have watched their playoff hopes slowly slip away while going 3-6-1 in their last 10 games.

After snapping out of a six-game skid with an impressive 6-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday, the Islanders were shut out 4-0 by the New Jersey Devils less than 24 hours later on Sunday.

Mathew Barzal leads the Islanders in scoring with 73 points (22 goals, 51 assists). On the blue line, Noah Dobson ranks first among the team’s defensemen with 65 points (eight goals, 57 assists). On the cusp of the 30-goal mark, Bo Horvat and Brock Nelson have each touched twine 29 times.

Ilya Sorokin has handled the bulk of the work in net for the Islanders, posting an 22-19-11 record with a .907 save percentage. If he doesn’t get the nod against the Panthers, it’ll be backup Semyon Varlamov, who’s gone 8-7-4 with a .910 save percentage in 21 appearances this season.

For the Panthers, a key to coming out on top could be on special teams.

With the Islanders ranking last in the NHL on the penalty with a 71.9% success rate, Florida’s fourth-ranked power play, which is currently operating at 25.9%, could have a strong showing.

The rubber match of their season series, the Panthers followed up a 4-3 loss to the Islanders at Amerant Bank Arena on Dec. 2 with a 3-2 win in overtime on Jan. 27 at UBS Arena. Tkachuk and Reinhart have each lit the lamp twice against New York this season, while three different players have tallied three assists.

“They just had three days off and they’ll look at this saying, ‘We absolutely have to win this game,’” Maurice said of New York. “We’re going to get the single very best game out of the New York Islanders.”


“We’re a hungry team. We had a taste of it. We were right there and came up a little short. We want it badly. I can tell you that every guy in this locker room is dying for that chance to win. We’re definitely a group that’s going to do whatever it takes.” – Sam Bennett

“We just talk about what’s the edge in the game, what’s the penalty we can’t take, what’s the coverage we can’t miss. Small details.” – Paul Maurice


- Sam Reinhart has scored five goals in his last five games.

- Anthony Stolarz’s .927 save percentage is tied for first in the NHL (min. 20 games played).

- Matthew Tkachuk has record a team-leading 244 shots on goal.

- Brandon Montour leads Florida’s defensemen with nine multi-point performances.

- Aleksander Barkov is two points away from hitting 700 points in the NHL.



Evan Rodrigues – Aleksander Barkov – Vladimir Tarasenko

Carter Verhaeghe – Sam Bennett – Matthew Tkachuk

Eetu Luostarinen – Anton Lundell – Sam Reinhart

Nick Cousins – Steven Lorentz – Kevin Stenlund


Gustav Forsling – Aaron Ekblad

Niko Mikkola – Brandon Montour

Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Dmitry Kulikov


Anthony Stolarz

Sergei Bobrovsky


- March 27: D Uvis Balinskis loaned to Charlotte (AHL)

- March 25: F Ben Steeves agreed to terms on a 2-year ELC commencing in 2024-25

- March 21: D Uvis Balinskis recalled from Charlotte (AHL)


When: Thursday, March 28 at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Amerant Bank Arena – Sunrise, FL

TV & Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, Bally Sports+, Bally Sports Sun (pre-game)

TV Note: With the Miami Marlins celebrating Opening Day, tonight’s pre-game show will be on Bally Sports Sun. If the game goes long, tonight’s game will start on Bally Sports Sun. Coverage will also be broadcast on alternate channels for DirecTV (654-1) and U-verse (721/1721) viewers tonight.

Radio: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 1230 WBZT (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 101.7 WCZR (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM Channel 220 / App & Streaming 932; Panthers App

Tickets: Click Here