When your best player goes down with a shoulder injury, the timing is never ideal. That’s what happened to the Arizona Coyotes in the middle of a critical stretch drive.
Losing players to injury may be one thing, but in the zenith of the quest for a slot in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the results could be significant. That’s what essentially happened to the Coyotes and their effort to gain a seat at the playoff table.
When defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson sustained a bruised shoulder against the Blues on Feb. 20 on his first shift of the game, that’s what occurred. At the time, the Coyotes were 27-25-6 for 60 standing points in the standings. Though Ekman-Larsson played in the subsequent eight games, his production sank. In those contests, he managed just two assists and two goals. In the span, the Coyotes lost seven contests, and dropped off the Stanley Cup radar screen. With pain and discomfort increasing , Ekman-Larsson was forced to miss the next six games, and managed to get back on the ice only this past Tuesday night.
Upon his return at home against Edmonton, the Coyotes were 31-34-7 for 69 points, and 11 points behind Colorado Avalanche for the final Western Conference playoff spot. Without their quarterback engineering the power play and their smartest defensemen intelligently playing angles and moving the puck swiftly to the neutral zone, the Coyotes did not only lose an All-Star player, but lost one of the most important players in the NHL.
Ekman-Larsson’s return to the line-up Tuesday night in a Coyotes win over the Oilers clearly marked a celebration. Not only was his presence felt on the ice and in the dressing room, but his number 23 helped produce greater energy throughout Gila River Arena.
Declared free from pain and ready to resume his customary position at the left point, Ekman-Larsson is one of those rare players who can not only energize his teammates, but help lift their level of engagement.
Back On The Ice
“It was fun to play in a game again,” he said afterward. “It’s kind of hard when you sit on the side and watch your teammates play. You want to get back in the ice. It took some time to make sure I was ready to play, and I felt pretty good.”
Ekman-Larsson’s value to his teammates cannot be underestimated. His ability to control the game from the blue line and provide leadership remains essential hallmarks of his game. Playing in a small market like Phoenix, some argue, is a determinant to the promotion of Ekman-Larsson’s game. Not skating under a microscope like perhaps in the hockey capitals of Montreal, Toronto, New York or Chicago, Ekman-Larsson appears perfectly comfortable under the radar screen.
“You can’t replace a guy like that,” said goaltender Mike Smith. “I think he’s a special player and obviously, when he’s out of the line-up, he’s missed. I think the defense did a great job in trying to fill the void.”
On the night he returned to the line-up, Ekman-Larsson was paired with Michael Stone, his usual partner on the blue line. Against the Oilers, Ekman-Larsson played 20 minutes, 50 seconds, and Stone skated 22 minutes, 55 seconds. Ekman-Larsson also played 3 minutes even on the power play, the most of any Arizona skater with the man advantage.
For the game, the Coyotes went 1-for-3 on the power play and maintained their status among the top teams with the man advantage. Coming into the Oilers game, they were seventh in the league on the power play at home.
Perhaps Ekman-Larsson’s return came too late to help his team inch into postseason play. Still, his presence and aura reminds even the casual observer that the absence of an elite player represents more than a void in the line-up.
Mark Brown is a former sports editor for daily newspapers in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati markets. He was named Best Sports Columnist, honorable mention 2004 by the Associated Press Society of Ohio. He is a contributor to major daily newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic, Nashville Tennessean and the Associated Press. He was a Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com and covered the Arizona Coyotes.