Mike Halford

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Report: Panthers want Ekblad pulled from World Cup amid concussion concerns

Florida isn’t taking any chances with Aaron Ekblad.

Ekblad, the franchise defenseman that was shook up on a Leo Komarov hit during North America’s win over Finland on Sunday, is reportedly on his way back to South Florida and expected to miss the remainder of the World Cup, per the Miami Herald.

From a source within the Panthers organization, the Herald reports Ekblad suffered a “mild concussion” on the hit. Florida also told the NHL it doesn’t want him playing in the tournament anymore.

Team North America brass, meanwhile, isn’t saying much.

GM Peter Chiarelli said Ekblad is day-to-day with an upper-body injury, and head coach Todd McLellan reiterated that diagnosis following North America’s 4-3 loss to Russia on Monday night — a game in which Ekblad was scratched and replaced by Jacob Trouba.

“Upper-body, day-to-day, don’t know how long he’ll be,” McLellan said. “And it’s a big loss.”

It’s not coincidental that “TNA” lost its first game without Ekblad in the lineup. The first overall pick in 2014, Ekblad burst onto the NHL scene and has emerged as arguably the best young defensive prospect in hockey.

After capturing the Calder in ’14-15, he racked up an impressive 15 goals and 36 points in his sophomore campaign last season, receiving a handful of Norris votes in the process.

Ekblad quickly emerged as a linchpin on the North American blueline. He averaged close to 22 minutes per game in the three exhibitions, finishing with two goals and an assist, then played a team-high 23:53 in the win over Finland.

It’s pretty obvious why the Panthers want Ekblad out of this tournament.

He’s a budding star, already one of the faces of the franchise and a major investment — this summer, he inked a monster eight-year, $60 million extension with Florida, one that will keep him with the organization through 2025.

Because of that, it’s almost impossible to think Ekblad will return to play for Team North America in this tournament.

Drama in Dallas as Nichushkin reportedly close to KHL deal (Updated)

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Latest update: The pendulum swings back in favor of Valeri Nichushkin signing with CSKA Moscow of the KHL, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.

Nothing is official yet, however.

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The Valeri Nichushkin saga in Dallas could be over soon — and not with the ending the Stars or GM Jim Nill hoped for.

Nichushkin, a still-unsigned RFA, had his KHL rights acquired by league powerhouse CSKA Moscow on Monday, per Sport-Express.

Not long after that news broke, various reports (including the original from R-Sport) claimed that Nichuskin was working on a two-year pact with CSKA.

The contract term is interesting, in light of this:

The rift between Ruff and Nichushkin is well-documented.

Nichushkin, the 10th overall pick in 2013, showed well as a rookie, scoring 14 goals and 34 points in 79 games, but his sophomore campaign was a nightmare — he missed nearly the entire season with a hip injury and subsequent surgery, and only appeared in eight contests.

Last year, he struggled.

And Ruff wasn’t exactly all warm and cuddly about it.

In fact, the veteran bench boss sent a message right at the start of the season, making Nichushkin a healthy scratch while adding the 21-year-old needed to “get his head in the right place.”

In late March, an interview with with Russian news outlet Sport-Express made waves, as Nichuskin said he didn’t feel Ruff trusted him, or played him enough.

Not long after, Nichuskin’s agent tried to clear the air.

“Val loves it in Dallas,” Mark Gandler told the Morning News. “He’s very happy there.”

Maybe not that happy.

Update:

Gandler denied a deal with CSKA has been reached, per Sportsnet, but didn’t rule out his client going to the KHL.

Related:

Despite erratic year, Stars say Nichushkin still ‘very important player to us’

Under Pressure: Valeri Nichushkin

Lundqvist (flu) feeling better, hopes to play against Finland

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After missing Sunday’s 2-1 win over Russia as a late scratch due to the flu, Henrik Lundqvist could be back in goal when hSweden takes on Finland tomorrow.

“I feel better today,” Lundqvist said at Monday’s practice, per ESPN. “Yesterday was just not good enough to be able to play. The decision was made together with [coach] Rikard [Gronborg]. The position is what it is, and it’s a lot of responsibility.

“You just can’t go out there and see if you’re OK, so we made that decision, which was a good one.”

Lundqvist then praised backup netminder Jacob Markstrom, who played very well against the Russians by stopping 27 of 28 shots faced.

While there are probably some rumblings about Gronborg sticking with Markstrom for Tuesday’s game, it’s hard to envision Sweden parking Lundqvist if he’s healthy. (And yes, that’s taking King Henrik’s shaky exhibition effort into account as well.)

Gronborg said Lundqvist had a “strong practice” on Monday.

 

Rain keeps falling on Dallas as Czechs rule out Faksa (upper body)

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Stars GM Jim Nill can’t be loving life right now.

Last week, he — in conjunction with Team Canada — announced that star forward Tyler Seguin had been ruled out of the World Cup with an ankle injury, later revealed to be a hairline fracture.

Earlier today, reports claimed that still-unsigned RFA Valeri Nichushkin was close to signing in Russia.

And now?

Radek Faksa, the 13th overall pick in 2012, suffered an upper-body injury in the Czech Republic’s blowout loss to Canada on Saturday, and has been ruled out of tonight’s game against Team Europe.

Faksa, 22, had been a key contributor for the Czechs prior to getting hurt. He played nearly 17 minutes in the opening exhibition against Russia, nearly 18 in the rematch two days later, and scored a goal in a surprising 3-2 win over Team North America in the exhibition finale.

Faksa figures to be a key contributor for Dallas this year, too.

He made his NHL debut in last season and fared well, with 12 points in 45 games, but really came into his own in the playoffs, scoring five points — including two game-winning goals — while bumping his TOI up to 16:08 per night.

At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, he has good size — vitally important for playing center in the loaded Western Conference. If he’s out for any length of time, it’s a fairly significant loss.

Russia will ‘fight like it’s our last battle’ against high-flying North Americans

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Team Russia has almost everything to play for when it takes on Team North America tonight in its second — and most important — World Cup of Hockey tilt (8 p.m. ET, Air Canada Centre).

The Russians lost their opener 2-1 to Sweden, which put an incredible amount of weight on Monday’s contest. The World Cup group stage is of the round-robin variety, meaning that — given each group only features four teams — losing twice is a virtual death knell.

“It’s the most important day,” Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky said of tonight’s game, per the Russian Hockey Federation. “We will fight like it’s our last battle.”

If Sunday night was any indication, the Russians will need to fight.

North America absolutely overwhelmed Finland in the second of yesterday’s games, cruising to a 4-1 victory on goals from Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon.

Comprised of players aged 23 or younger, “TNA” raced out to a commanding 4-0 lead before Valterri Filppula spoiled Matt Murray‘s shutout bid with less than five minutes remaining.

North America dominated nearly every facet of the game and ended up out-shooting the Finns by a whopping 43-25 margin.

“They won every battle,” Finnish coach Lauri Marjamaki said in his postgame presser. “They skate hard. They’re so impressive. All the credit’s to them.

“They’re such a great team, and that’s it.”

Shot disparity will be something to watch tonight, especially from a Russian perspective. Head coach Oleg Znarok felt his club needed to put far more pucks on goal against Sweden — The Russians finished with 28 — and one has to think he was probably referring to the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov (no shots on goal), Artemi Panarin (one) and Pavel Datsyuk (one).

Vladimir Tarasenko said the Russians were guilty of over-passing.

“We wanted to play beautiful hockey, but that wasn’t the right decision,” he said. “We need to do what the coach says, and take more shots.”

Given the stakes for tonight’s game, it’s expected the spotlight will once again be on Alexander Ovechkin.

The club’s captain — and, too often, the face of disappointments on the biggest stages — Ovechkin had a rough time on Sunday, taking two bad penalties while finishing with just 16:25 TOI.

He did, however, score Russia’s only goal on the night and nearly had the equalizer with less than 10 seconds remaining — only to have it waved off.

Following the game, he critiqued Russia’s style of play against the Swedes.

“We just didn’t have speed through the neutral zone,” Ovechkin said, per NHL.com. “If we had speed, we didn’t have support, so we’re trying to be one on one and we see it’s not going to work.”

Ovi and Team Russia will need to change their approach tonight.

If they don’t, their World Cup could be over.