Ekblad isn’t flustered by Panthers’ great expectations

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) Aaron Ekblad is fully aware that the Florida Panthers will be dealing with a new issue this season, that being the burden of preseason expectations.

He’s not bothered.

The Panthers reached the playoffs and won the Atlantic Division last season, two major steps for a franchise that has known almost nothing but struggle since reaching the Stanley Cup final for the first and only time in 1996. And with a young core of talent now basically locked up for years – the 20-year-old Ekblad is under contract through 2025 – anything less than a playoff run next spring would be a disappointment for Florida.

“In the end, your guys’ expectations and everyone else’s expectations mean absolutely nothing,” Ekblad said. “It’s our expectations. As players, on a personal level and on a team level, we have expectations that exceed all of yours times 10. In the end, we’re the ones who have gotten here. We’re the ones who have pushed ourselves beyond measure to get into this situation.”

And what is this situation?

“We believe we can do it,” Ekblad said.

Ekblad has been an All-Star defenseman in each of his first two NHL seasons, and he’s already one of the faces of the franchise. Hockey hasn’t caught basketball – even after Dwyane Wade left the Miami Heat this week for the Chicago Bulls – or football in terms of popularity among the South Florida sports landscape, but the fact that these Panthers are getting attention in the summertime shows how far the franchise has come.

The Panthers announced his $60 million, eight-year extension (which kicks in next summer) last week, then held a news conference at their arena on Thursday to announce the deal again. There’s some offseason rebuilding projects going on in the arena, and there was some remodeling of the roster this summer as well.

There’s more than two months before the start of training camp, but it’s hard to find a time when optimism has been this high for Florida.

“We put ourselves in a good position,” Panthers general manager Tom Rowe said. “Are we a definite Stanley Cup, going-away winner right now? I don’t think you can rule us out but it’s not a guarantee by any stretch of the imagination. But I think we’ve got the horses now to have a deep run in the playoffs.”

Ekblad will be a big key, if or when that deep run ever comes.

He’s seemed unfazed by whatever came his way in his first two seasons with the Panthers. His confession came Thursday: He’s not always as cool as he appears.

“I try to keep it all in my head,” Ekblad said. “I really try to put a face on that no one really knows what’s going on inside my head and I think a lot of players from a lot of different sports have that. Obviously, every night, I go to bed and I think about all those things and all those pressures. But more or less just have to use it as motivation and that’s what I’ve done over the last couple years.”

It’s working for him, and it’s working for the Panthers as well.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.