As the final horn sounded on Saturday night’s game against the Buffalo Sabres, three things were crystal clear. The first was that the Florida Panthers had learned from their disappointing shootout loss of December 4th against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The second was that the team has been doing some great things this season. And the third? A youngster named Aaron Ekblad is not only a skilled player, but an immensely centered player both on and off the ice.
Having let the Blue Jackets get up three goals on them just two days before while Panthers were in Columbus, it was clear that such play would not be an option going forward. The team had managed to tie the game and force it to a shootout, but they also recognized that it shouldn’t have ever come to that if they had played a hard and full 60 minutes. So it was not surprising to see them bringing their game to the Sabres on Saturday.
That approach showed results just 13:05 into the first period when Brad Boyes’ snap got past Sabres goalie Michal Neuvirth to put the Panthers on the board first. Boyes’ goal was assisted by Jussi Jokinen and Aaron Ekblad. Florida would take that one goal lead into the first intermission.
Despite being up a goal, with just 4:44 remaining in the first, Panthers’ Erik Gudbranson and Marcus Foligno, of the Sabres, dropped the gloves in what was a brief fight that many on HockeyFights.com felt was a win for Foligno. It was not one of those staged “shall we dance” type fights. Foligno had come over and checked Gudbranson hard just after Gudbranson had passed the puck. Gudbranson wanted Foligno to know that he did not appreciate the treatment. And in fact, in watching the fight afterwards, it was clear that Gudbranson was talking to Foligno as much as he was trading punches.
After the game, Gudbranson was asked about his physicality—including the fight—in the game.
“Yah, I don’t think the past five games I played to my abilities and that’s the first thing that comes to mind when I’m in a little funk is to get physical again, get engaged in the game early,” he told reporters in the locker room. “I think that was a big key to me feeling more comfortable out there tonight and helping the team win.”
The second period was not met with the same “jump”—as head coach Gerard Gallant called it postgame, and that allowed the Sabres an opportunity to tie the game up 11:02 into that period as Drew Stafford’s one-timer managed to get in behind Roberto Luongo. Unfazed though, the Panthers didn’t waste any time in responding when Tomas Kopecky managed to get the monkey off his back by tipping in a shot from Ekblad at 12:55. The second assist on that goal went to Nick Bjugstad.
The Sabres continued to push and approximately three minutes after going up a goal the Panthers found the score once again tied as Brian Gionta tipped in his third goal of the season from the pass by Mike Weber which was assisted by Torrey Mitchell.
The Panthers continued to bring their game though, and with just 17 seconds remaining in the second period, Bjugstad tipped in what would stand as the game-winning goal, assisted by Ekblad and Tomas Fleischmann.
Post game there was much use of the phrase “carried the play,” and overall it was true that Florida had continued to push and battle throughout the game. But no one in the Panthers locker room believes they can sit on their laurels going forward.
“You know, I think there’s certain things to our game that we need to clean up. They only got what we gave them,” Gudbranson said in discussing the win. “So just cleaning the little things up, just being stingy defensively, get through the neutral zone is good.”
“I thought the boys played well tonight, especially during the third period where we kept pushing even though we didn’t score,” Luongo said. “We kept attacking, moving our legs, carrying the play. Anytime they had the puck we felt that we already had a guy pressuring them and they didn’t have much room to execute.”
After the game, and after his impressive three assists to extend his point streak to four consecutive games, Ekblad was told that he had surpassed some major defensemen in scoring, including Duncan Keith and Shea Weber. He was asked if that was a “cool feeling.” The exceptional rookie, who is so poised out on the ice, showed that he is just as poised in the locker room.
“Those guys are great players. I’m sure they’ll surpass me again,” he said. “I don’t want to get too cocky or anything like that, but [I’m] pretty happy to be producing and I couldn’t be doing that without some help from these guys. They’re making great plays and getting me those opportunities.”
When it comes to taking advantage of those opportunities, while it is clear that Ekblad has immense skill, he has also spent countless hours honing that skill, especially when it comes to his sifter.
“It’s kind of a skill that you kinda work on,” he told reporters when asked about his accuracy at the net. “In Junior before every practice, me and one of my best buddies, Brendan Lemieux, he’d stand in front of the net and I’d just take like 20 or 30 pucks and shoot them every day. It kinda adds up after awhile and that’s just kind of how I worked on it.”
In an ironic twist, Ekblad’s friend, Lemieux, was also drafted this past summer in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. He was taken in the second round (31st over all) by none other than the Buffalo Sabres; the team on the receiving end of those sifters.
Ekblad explained that the sift was working and it was creating scoring opportunities for his teammates who were in and around the crease. And he seems truly thrilled when his teammates score, as in the goal by Kopecky.
“Oh I love it,” Ekblad said. “I love that line, you know [Derek MacKenzie] and [Kopecky] and [ShawnThornton]—some of the hardest working guys in the whole league, so it’s pretty special to watch them.”
A skill player such as Ekblad offering up such praise about a line that most people dismiss as nothing, shows his hockey IQ. And Gallant’s ability to roll four lines has obviously allowed for his team to keep the games to such tight numbers in most games. And perhaps Gudbranson said it best.
“You know they played very well for us and they’ve been very good for us all year,” he told reporters when asked about the veterans getting goals in Saturday’s game. “You know just because they aren’t on the score board doesn’t mean they’re not doing their job.”
The team now heads out on a big road trip this week when they take on the St. Louis Blues (Monday, December 8th), the Detroit Red Wings (Friday, December 12th), and again see the Sabres, this time in their barn (Saturday, December 13th).
Gudbranson summed up how important the win Saturday night was over the Sabres in less than ten words—showing that it is quality, not necessarily quantity, that makes the difference in shots and responses.
“To get those two points is really clutch.”