Ekblad recovered from broken leg, playing major role for Panthers

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Aaron Ekblad has watched the video more than 100 times.

“At least,” the Florida Panthers defenseman said.

The brutality of it never changes.

Each time Ekblad sees his left leg buckling underneath him, bending the wrong way, fracturing in an instant after he was checked by defenseman Esa Lindell 8:53 into the second period of a game against the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on March 28.

Each time he sees the pain in his face. If you listen closely, you can hear him scream. 

“It wasn’t just the broken leg,” Ekblad said. “It was the ligaments that I tore on the inside of my ankle that were much worse than the fracture itself.”

Ekblad has watched his nightmare over and over again because maybe he’d learn something, take a positive out of an injury that ended what could have been a Norris Trophy-winning season for the 25-year-old.

“Through my concussions I learned that when you get injured it’s often something that you did and if you can avoid doing that in the future, it’s good,” Ekblad said. “In the case of my concussions it was the way I protected myself, didn’t do a good job of it, ended up getting hit and putting myself in vulnerable positions that I don’t do anymore. I wanted to make sure there was nothing I could do in that situation [with my leg], and in that situation I felt as if though there was nothing I could do. I got tripped over the guy’s leg and our skates met and that’s what kept my skate behind my body. If his skate wasn’t there, it would have slid forward and I would have been fine, no issue.”

Ekblad is fine now, he said about 99 percent only because he’s been told it takes about a full year to get back to 100 percent. He’s 15 games into a season that has the potential to end with him winning the Norris Trophy, given to the top defenseman in the NHL. It’s also a breakthrough season for the Panthers.

Florida (10-2-3) is first in the Atlantic Division going into its game against the New York Islanders at FLA Live Arena on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET: ESPN+, HULU). Ekblad has played in all 15 games, scoring 11 points (four goals, seven assists) averaging a Panthers-high 25:43 of ice time per game, eighth in the NHL.

Video: WSH@FLA: Ekblad buries slap shot into twine

That Ekblad is back and seemingly hasn’t missed a beat from how he was playing before the injury last season, when he scored 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in 35 games, is a testament to his persistence in his rehabilitation and offseason training regimen.

“I don’t want anyone to look at it like because of what he went through this season looks good,” Ekblad said. “I’d like to just feel like I’m playing well, and it has nothing to do with my injury and my injury has no bearing on it. I feel good. I feel confident. I feel like I’m getting better every day and learning a bit of stuff I haven’t done in a long time on the power play at the top and breaking pucks out.

“That’s how I view it. Everyone always says, ‘Especially with what you went through.’ I don’t want to think about it that way. I want to think of it just picking up where I left off last season.”

Ekblad left last season with pain and shock he had never felt before.

“I felt that it broke,” he said. “I felt that I either felt the snap or I heard the snap. So instantaneously I started screaming. It wasn’t so much pain as it was like pure shock. It wasn’t a compound, it wasn’t pointing the other way, but it felt as if though it was.”

The worst of it came later, the mental part, when Ekblad had to watch the Panthers advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where they lost in six games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the best-of-7 Stanley Cup First Round.

“We definitely missed him in the series against Tampa,” Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar said. “We could have used him. But that’s another thing our group had to face, the adversity. Having him back again now, he’s having another unbelievable season. Knock on wood he stays healthy all year. We know how big he is for our team.”

Ekblad has heard people saying if he were healthy maybe the outcome of that series would have been different.

He’s not buying it.

“I’m just one player,” he said. “In the NHL, besides Connor McDavid, I don’t think there is any one player that makes any one team completely different. I’m just a defenseman. I can’t change a game. I know that for a fact. I don’t know if I would have made that much of a difference.”

He’s making a difference now.

“Last year, I thought until he got hurt, he was a Norris Trophy candidate,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said. “Like a lot of our guys he probably doesn’t get as much publicity as he deserves but that’s how good I thought he played on both ends of the ice. He’s been able to get back to that level of play pretty quickly. It says how hard he works. It says a lot about him and his drive to be not just a really good player, he wants to be a great player and he shoulders all the responsibility, all the big minutes. He wants it all. He’s as good as there is in the League.”

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