CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — On the final day of the Florida Panthers annual development camp, the Red team defeated the Blue team 6-5 in a shootout as defenseman Aaron Ekblad scored in front of a packed house at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs.
Unlike a traditional hockey game, the Panthers’ intrasquad scrimmage was played as two 30-minute halves with a 13-minute intermission.
Already penciled in as the team’s top-line center, forward Aleksander Barkov did not suit up for the game, leaving Ekblad alone in the spotlight as the must-see prospect of the day.
Selected first overall just weeks ago in the draft, Ekblad’s much-anticipated debut was ripe with both flashes of brilliance and some expected growing pains.
Midway through the first half, an errant pass from Ekblad found its way to the stick of tryout Mike Vecchione, formerly of Union College, who then scored the game’s first goal by sending a wrist shot past the blocker of 2014 seventh-round pick Hugo Fagerblom. Less than a minute later, right winger Logan Shaw lifted a shot over Fagerblom’s shoulder to put the Red team up 2-0.
"I wasn’t happy with my defensive play today," Ekblad said. "Obviously, I have to get my defensive game up to par.
"I think it’s all just adaptation. It’s a lot faster up here. I just need to get back into my usual groove. This pace isn’t that fast, it is fast, but I know the NHL is a lot faster than that."
At the end of the first half, Ekblad’s Blue team trailed 2-0 as tryout goaltender Colin Stevens stopped all of the shots he faced.
"I felt pretty good in there," said Stevens, a NCAA champion with Union College this past season. "I didn’t get too many shots, but I felt like I was seeing the puck pretty well. I felt like I played pretty well."
As the second half began, the Red team continued to pile on the offense as defenseman Tony Turgeon was able to split the Blue team’s defense and put a shot past recently signed goaltender Sam Brittain.
Trailing by three goals with 13 minutes left in the game, Florida native Cody Payne brought the Blue team back from the dead after sliding a wrist shot through the five-hole of goaltender Evan Cowley.
About four minutes later, Ekblad, who had been fairly quiet up until this point, showed fans a glimpse of what so many scouts had seen prior to the draft. In a 2-on-1 rush down the ice, Ekblad let loose a rocket from the top right circle over Cowley’s glove to bring the Blue team within one goal with 9:19 remaining.
"It was good, I was happy with it," Ekblad said of his goal.
Over the next two minutes, Ekblad was joined on the scoresheet by fellow 2014 draftees Juho Lammikko (third round, 65th overall) and Miguel Fidler (fifth round, 143rd overall) as the Blue team erased an early 3-0 deficit to take a 4-3 lead with 7:37 remaining in regulation.
"What we expected is what we got," Panthers director of player development Brian Skrudland said of Ekblad’s performance at camp. "He’s not only a great hockey individual, but he’s a good person off the ice. He seemed to take a leadership role with this group right off the hop and ran with it. He was vocal, respectable, everything it takes to be a Panther. His future looks bright."
With the clock winding down, the teams traded goals as University of Michigan standout forward Zach Hyman and local tryout defenseman Colin Suellentrop both scored for their respective teams.
After pulling their goalie for an extra attacker, Red team forward Connor Brickley, who signed an entry-level contract with the Panthers in April, sent the game into overtime after netting the equalizer with just 19 seconds remaining in regulation.
Scoreless after five minutes of overtime, the two teams headed to a shootout where forward Yaroslav Kosov, a fifth-round pick in 2011, scored the lone goal to give the Red team a 6-5 victory.
"I loved it," Ekblad said of his first development camp. "I had a lot of fun from the very beginning. I learned quite a few pretty important lessons I can take into the rest of the summer. Obviously, I still have a lot of hard work to go through to make this team."
For many of the skaters in attendance, development camp will be as close as they ever come to reaching their dream of making it to the NHL. And even though they may never don a Panthers jersey, for one week a year they are treated like stars.