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Oliver Ekman-Larsson calms fears with return to Coyotes lineup

Arizona Coyotes defenseman Connor Murphy, left, celebrates his third period goal against the Washington Capitals with teammate Oliver Ekman-Larsson during an NHL hockey game, on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Washington. The Capitals defeated the Coyotes 3-2. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson echoed the thoughts of all Arizona hockey fans when he spoke to’s Sarah McClellan after Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center.

“I’m glad I’m back,” he said.

Ekman-Larsson gave fans and his team a scare when he left Saturday’s game against the St. Louis Blues with a lower-body injury in the first period. Coach Dave Tippett did not think it would be a long-term injury, listing him as day to day, but any amount of time without Ekman-Larsson in the lineup is too long for the Coyotes.

That goes double for this time of year, and triple for this particular road trip. The Coyotes are trying to hang around the Western Conference wild card race as they face the NHL’s top team (Washington), along with defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay, the Atlantic Division leading Florida Panthers, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games.

Ekman-Larsson averages a team-high 24:48 of ice time per game, making him one of two Coyotes who log more than 20 minutes per game. He is critical to the Coyotes’ power play and he leads the team in power-play goals with 11. He also leads the team in game-winning goals with seven, he is second among NHL defensemen with 17 goals and tied for fourth in points with 46.

Ekman-Larsson took part in Monday’s morning skate, but coach Dave Tippett listed him as a game-time decision, ramping up the tension until Ekman-Larsson took the ice before the game.

“It wasn’t that serious,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I felt good during the warm-ups so I decided to play and I’m glad I did. I felt pretty good out there.”

Apparently so. Ekman-Larsson logged a game-high 25:03 of ice time, had four shots, three hits, a blocked shot and assist on Connor Murphy’s goal that drew the Coyotes within 3-2 with 10:17 to play. He also came to Murphy’s defense in a tussle near the benches.

It appears the Coyotes will have their best player for the duration of their season-defining road trip.

“He wanted to come back the other night so I don’t think his injury is as serious as people anticipated it was,” Tippett said. “He came out and he played a heck of a game for us out there.”

Coyotes at Lightning

When: Tuesday, 5:30 p.m.

Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa

TV: FOX Sports Arizona

Radio: ESPN 620 AM

Season series: First meeting

Probable goalies: Lightning — Andrei Vasilevskiy. Coyotes — Louis Domingue.

Injury report: Lightning — RW Nikita Kucherov (lower body) is a game-time decision. D Jason Garrison (lower body) and RW Joel Vermin (hand) are out. Coyotes — G Mike Smith (abdominal surgery) is likely to return in early March. C Boyd Gordon (upper body) is week to week. G Anders Lindback (Achilles) and RW Joe Vitale (concussion symptoms) are out for the season.

Scouting the Lightning: Tampa has struggled to replicate last season’s success when the Lightning advanced the Stanley Cup Finals. Tampa is tied for second place in the Atlantic Division with 70 points, but the Bolts are just a game away from dropping into a wild card spot and just five points ahead ninth-place New Jersey in the conference. … Kucherov leads the Bolts with 49 points (24 goals). Impending free-agent F Steven Stamkos leads the team in assists. … GM Steve Yzerman quelled trade rumors about Stamkos earlier this month when he said he would not deal the star before deadline as Tampa works to re-sign him.

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