Panthers’ Aaron Ekblad struggled in Game 1 vs. Bruins. How he responded has been key

Aaron Ekblad didn’t need much reminding about how he played in the Florida Panthers’ second-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series opener against the Boston Bruins. The veteran defenseman struggled in the game, a 5-1 loss that put Florida in an early hole in the best-of-7 series. There were giveaways, defensive miscues, untimely turnovers — far from what the Panthers need from one of their top blue liners.

Ekblad already knew that performance needed to be a one-game affair, an outlier, if the Panthers wanted to continue their push for a deep postseason run.

Panthers coach Paul Maurice did his part to amplify that message.

“We’re going to deal with it,” Maurice said. “We’re going to deal with the video. He’s on it. He’s not very happy with me in the morning skate the next day. I was not unkind; I was honest. I wasn’t trying to make a point, but he’s still a proud man.”

Ekblad is the Panthers’ longest-tenured defenseman and longest-tenured player on the team overall not named Aleksander Barkov. There’s an onus on him performing in big moments. He knows the importance of responding to the challenge.

So what does Ekblad do after that series opener to forget?

He elevated his game and has strung together three consecutive outstanding performances to help get the Panthers within one game of reaching the Eastern Conference final for a second consecutive year.

During the past three games, all Florida wins, the Bruins have not scored when Ekblad has been on the ice. During his 54 minutes and 55 seconds on the ice at 5-on-5, Florida had an 85-31 edge in shot attempts, 44-9 lead in shots on goal and 37-12 advantage in scoring chances against Boston.

Ekblad also has a team-high six blocked shots along with 10 hits and two assists in that span.

“At the end of the day, it’s important to be consistent in this league,” Ekblad said in an interview with the Miami Herald on Monday, ahead of the team’s potential series-clinching Game 5 matchup against the Bruins on Tuesday night. “Sometimes, you’re gonna have an off night. I’ve got plenty of excuses as to why things went wrong in Game 1, but at the end of the day no one gives a [expletive] about that. It’s all about bouncing back and rebounding.

“I think that’s more important than the fact that I didn’t have a great Game 1. It is what it is. That’s the nature of the beast.”

Maurice made sure to give Ekblad his credit for the quick turnaround in performance. With a few minutes left in Florida’s Game 2 win over Boston to even the series, the coach gave the player a shot on the shoulder before the two had a brief exchange.

“I can’t use the words that I used,” Maurice said, “but I said ‘That was pretty good.’ I can’t use the words he used, but he said ‘What did you expect?’

“Good for him,” Maurice continued. “God, I like that. ... He’s played like a leader. He didn’t like his [first] game. He came to the rink with a snarl and he’s been good for us.”

That comes as no surprise to those around him. Ekblad, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, is wrapping up his 10th season with the Panthers. He owns the franchise records for defensemen in games played (676), goals (115), assists (232), points (347), power-play goals (41) and game-winning goals (24). Tuesday will be 50th career playoff game.

“His career shows how good of a player he is and how talented he is on the ice and off the ice,” fellow Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour said. “He works hard. He’s more reserved, quiet, but a leader that shows the work on the ice. He’s a really good player for us and we need him to continue building and leading us in that aspect. He’s a guy that we lean heavy on.”

And if there’s any questioning Ekblad’s desire to do everything he can to get the Panthers their first Stanley Cup, just remember what he played through during last season’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

He sustained a broken foot in the first round and a dislocated shoulder. At one point, Ekblad also had to get tested for a concussion. He still managed to play in 20 of Florida’s 21 playoff games. This came after dealing two other serious injuries in consecutive seasons — a fractured right ankle in 2021 and a right knee injury in 2022.

“Once you get to the game and you get the adrenaline going and get the good meds, you can kind of get through anything,” Ekblad said. “It’s those days between games and stuff like that were really tough. That was mentally grueling, having a hard time walking and not being able to wear a boot because you don’t really want the other team to know that you got a broken foot. It’s little things like that, but that’s the grind.

“At this point, I know that most of what’s going to happen is temporary,” Ekblad added. “The pain is only temporary — the cost of it and the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup is lifetime. So that’s kind of the way I look at it.”

That’s the mind-set that will carry him through the rest of the Panthers’ postseason run.

“It’s playoffs,” Montour said. “It’s one of those where you might not like a game that you have and when those games are over, you wash it. I think he did a good job of that. ... We’re a better team when Aaron is on the ice. I’m happy that he’s turned it around pretty quickly there.”