Ovechkin, Ekblad return to practice for Capitals, Panthers

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — Alex Ovechkin and Aaron Ekblad both practiced on Sunday. Those are excellent developments for the Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers.

All signs point to Ovechkin being in the lineup for Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round series against the Panthers on Tuesday night after missing the final three games of the regular season with what the team is calling an upper-body injury. And Ekblad, who missed Florida’s final 21 games with a knee injury, seems like he could be back for Game 1 as well.

“We’ll see,” Ovechkin said with a smile when asked if he’ll play.

Ovechkin skated on Washington’s top line at practice Sunday alongside Evgeny Kuznetsov and Conor Sheary and reported feeling good. The 36-year-old Russian superstar thinks he would’ve played the past week if they were playoff games.

Ekblad — Florida’s top defenseman — being able to take part in a full-fledged practice gave the Panthers a boost.

“It was great,” Panthers defenseman Radko Gudas said. “He had some great line rushes too, right away. It was fun to see him back and feeling confident. … He’s been our leader since Game 1. He plays the biggest role in our back end and he was a stud the whole season. We’re really looking forward to having him back. Obviously, it’s going to be hard for him right away to jump in Game 1, but if anybody can handle it it’s him.”

The Panthers have some other questions on the injury front. Leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau didn’t practice Sunday, with the team calling it a “maintenance day” for him and Mason Marchment.

Florida interim coach Andrew Brunette said there’s a chance Ekblad plays Tuesday. He didn’t think Huberdeau and Marchment would miss Game 1 either, but there’s still some doubt to clear up.

“With Huby, I’ve got to hear back today and Marchy, I’m hoping for Game 1,” Brunette said. “But I’m not sure.”

Ovechkin slammed into the boards left shoulder first last Sunday against Toronto and did not return. After getting some time to rest, he looked no worse for the wear in the Capitals’ first pre-playoff practice.

“He had a good day,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “He didn’t shy away from anything, so we hope he keeps moving forward.”

Ovechkin has only missed 27 games during his 17-year NHL career and none in the playoffs. He scored 50 goals this past season, tops on the team and fourth in the league.

“Obviously he is (the) best goal scorer in the league, and goals are important,” Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov said. “You can see (in the) last three games we didn’t score a lot. For sure we need him as a captain, as a leader, as our goal-scorer, so we need everyone, everybody healthy right now, so it is good.”

The Panthers were not caught off-guard by Ovechkin practicing. They expected to see him Tuesday anyway.

“Yeah, 100%,” Brunette said. “I didn’t think anything besides that.”

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AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno in Arlington, Virginia contributed to this story.

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