MIAMI — Florida defenceman Aaron Ekblad had surgery Monday and is likely done for the season, meaning the Panthers will have to continue their playoff push without one of their best players.
The Panthers said that Ekblad will need 12 weeks to recover. They didn't reveal the extent of the damage — hockey teams are rarely specific on injuries, and the team only went as far as to say he had surgery to "repair a fracture in his lower extremities."
But it was evident when he got hurt Sunday night at Dallas that it was a serious matter, and Monday's announcement only confirmed that. The 12-week timeframe means he wouldn't be able to play again until late June at the earliest.
"To be without a player of Aaron's calibre and character is an irreplaceable loss to our hockey club," Panthers general manager Bill Zito said. "Aaron is an incredibly driven and talented young player and a tremendous leader for our team. He has the heartfelt support of our organization, his teammates and fans as we wish him the best in his recovery and his eventual return. Despite Aaron's absence from our lineup, we are confident in our group's resiliency and motivation as we move forward."
The playoffs start in the second week of May, and the Stanley Cup Final will likely begin in late June or early July at the absolute latest. And there's no way of knowing if Ekblad will be ready, even if the Panthers — who haven't won a playoff series since 1996 — make it that far.
"He was great this year," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said Sunday. "I think he had so many games where he was dominant defensively, his offensive contributions joining the attack, adding a different dimension to our power play, significant minutes, matchups, controlling the outcomes of games. You couldn't ask for anything more."
Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar were one of the top defenceman pairings in the NHL this season. Ekblad had 11 goals and 11 assists for the Panthers this season, and his 878 minutes logged on the ice led the team by a wide margin.
Ekblad got hurt midway through the second period of Sunday's game after a hit from Dallas defenceman Esa Lindell. Ekblad fell very awkwardly and teammates said he could be heard screaming in pain on the ice. An air cast was eventually put on his left leg and Ekblad was taken off the ice on a stretcher.
He was able to fly home with the team Sunday night. Florida starts a four-game homestand Tuesday against Dallas.
The Panthers are well on their way to the playoffs. At 22-9-4, they're third in the Central Division, only two points entering Monday out of first and 11 points clear of fifth-place Chicago. The top four teams in each division go to the playoffs; Florida has 21 regular season games left, Chicago 20.
"It's going to be tough to do without him," Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau said. "But we're going to be there for him and we're going to support him."