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Expect Panthers to lean heavily on defensive pairing of Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar in Qualifying Round and beyond

Florida players react to opening round schedule that has Panthers playing all afternoon games

MacKenzie Weegar and Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers defend against Nick Ritchie of the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on February 19, 2020.
MacKenzie Weegar and Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers defend against Nick Ritchie of the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on February 19, 2020. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – It's always nice when you get to share the things you love with your closest friends.

Just imagine working side-by-side with your best bud, getting to hang out every day while pursuing a career with seemingly endless possibilities.

If it seems too good to be true, it isn't.

Just ask Florida Panthers defensemen Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar.

They're a tight-knit duo when away from the rink, but put them on the ice together as a back end pairing and magic can happen.

Magic…in the form of outstanding defensive hockey with some high-end offensive skill thrown in.

"They have a good rapport," Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said of the twosome. "They've got a nice little thing going where they push each other, in a good way.

"They're active in the attack, they're active offensively and exiting the (defensive) zone."

During the first 20 games of the regular season, and the final 16, no defensive pair was on the ice together more than Weegar and Ekblad.

It quickly became clear who was at the top of the defensive pairing hierarchy on the Panthers bench.

Well, that was until a pair of upper-body injuries kept Weegar out of Florida's lineup for 24 games between November and early February.

Missing nearly a third of the season didn't stop the 26-year-old from posting career high marks in goals (7), points (18), plus/minus (+6) and average time on ice (20:07).

A big part of that success can be attributed to Weegar's improved play, which elevated him to Ekblad's level and allowed for the superfriends to unite on the ice.

The two have been making beautiful (hockey) music together ever since.

"I think our success starts outside the rink," Weegar said. "We get along great.

"When we're back together, it's just two buddies playing hockey. We're very comfortable with each other. We're not afraid to get in each other's ear about something."

MacKenzie Weegar of the Florida Panthers skates with the puck during a game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on February 25, 2020.
MacKenzie Weegar of the Florida Panthers skates with the puck during a game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on February 25, 2020. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

One of the things that Quenneville and the coaching staff like about having Weegar and Ekblad on the ice together is how familiar they are with one another's game.

As evidenced during the season, they read off each other extremely well in their own end and rarely lose the puck. It's why the pair often find themselves matched up against the best forwards that their opposition has to offer.

"They're effective eating up minutes and getting some good matchups," Quenneville said.

Something else that Q can appreciate about Weegar and Ekblad is that neither hesitates to go to the dirty areas of the ice, and they both have no problem throwing their weight around and getting nasty when it’s an appropriate time to do so.

"When they've been together, it's been a real good pair for us," said Quenneville.

From earlier this season- Dynamic Duo: Quenneville may be on to something with Ekblad-Weegar pairing

DENISENKO DEAL OFFICIAL

Back in May, the Panthers announced they had come to terms on a three-year, entry level contract with 2018 first round pick Grigori Denisenko.

On Wednesday, ink met paper.

"We are thrilled to officially sign Grigori to an entry-level deal for the upcoming 2020-21 season," said Florida Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon in a statement released by the team. "He is a highly skilled and hard-working young player who has a bright future in our organization."

Denisenko's new deal kicks in for the 2020-21 season, so he is not eligible to practice with the team during the postseason training camp.

Tallon said he expects the 20-year-old to compete for a roster spot next season.

Since being drafted by Florida two summers ago, Denisenko has thrived while playing for his country. Skating with Team Russia’s U18 and U20 teams, he amassed 43 points (20-23-43) in 42 international games.

Denisenko has also spent the past two professional seasons skating with the KHL’s Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, where the results were not as impressive. Now to be fair, he was rarely used in the top six or on the power play, meaning he was skating with less-skilled players and seeing marginal ice time.

In 63 games with Loko, Denisenko logged a meager 18 points (10-8-18).

It would be shocking if Florida didn’t make a priority of putting the extremely talented Russian winger in a better position to succeed.

"Everybody is excited and thrilled that he is coming here," Quenneville said. "He's one of those players that has that high-end skill and ability to make things happen. I don't want to use the word 'wow' until we get to see him here, but there's a lot that we've liked from afar."

THE EARLY BIRD CATCHES THE...PUCK

Coach Q has been through it all when it comes to the NHL postseason.

He's had playoff games that didn't begin until close to 9 p.m. and he's been on the bench for his fair share of high noon puck drops. The start time doesn't change anything in regard to how much each game, each period and each shift matters to those on the ice.

Once the puck drops when the Panthers and Islanders lock horns in the Qualifying Round, it’s not going to matter to anyone that the sun is still shining outside Scotiabank Arena in Downtown Toronto.

"I don't mind playing afternoon games," Quenneville said with a smile. "At least those early games, we know they're going to start on time."

He's referring to Games 2 and 3 against the Islanders, which will kick off the NHL's daily playoff coverage at 12 p.m. on Aug. 4 and 5.

Game 1 begins at 4 p.m. on the first day of the postseason, Aug. 1.

"The first game is at 12, probably the ice will be better," Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau suggested.

Not only is he right, but the topic of start times and crisp, clean ice was discussed among several of Florida's players when they congregated at the Ice Den in Coral Springs on Wednesday, after the schedule had been released the night before.

"We're looking forward to that," Weegar said of the early starts. "We're going to have the fresh ice for the back to back skates and we're going to wake up and play hockey right away."

Added Huberdeau: "A noon game doesn't change (anything). I think we've experienced it. You just wake up and go straight (to the rink). I like it. 4 o'clock too, same thing. You can sleep in and then after a big win you can have a nice dinner."

CLEANER, SAFER BB&T CENTER

Earlier this week, the Panthers announced some changes that are coming to the BB&T Center.

Ownership is taking steps to ensure that when the team reopens its home arena to the public, those patrons will be visiting a safe and healthy place.

The Panthers have enrolled in the WELL Health-Safety Rating, which is an evidence-based, third party verified rating that helps organizations prepare their buildings and public spaces for the new safety protocols and standards that will come with reopening venues post-coronavirus pandemic.

The WELL Health-Safety Rating takes guidance from the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More information on WELL can be found by clicking here.


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