GLENDALE, Ariz. — Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson was back in the lineup when the Coyotes defeated the Edmonton Oilers, 4-2, on Tuesday at Gila River Arena. The two facts were related.
Ekman-Larsson had an assist on the Coyotes’ opening goal, he helped the power play break an 0-for-10 slump and he was on the ice for all four Coyotes goals to finish plus-three.
“He’s just so smooth back there in all situations,” coach Dave Tippett said. “It was nice to get him back.”
It’s possible Arizona would have succeeded against the Oilers anyway. Tuesday’s win extended the Coyotes’ franchise-record points streak against the Oilers to 23 games. Arizona is 19-0-4 during the streak and Tippett improved to 24-2-4 against Edmonton in his seven seasons in Arizona.
All the same, the Coyotes were happy to have their blue line quarterback on the ice.
“You can’t replace that guy,” goalie Mike Smith, who made 27 saves to improve to 13-1-1 against Edmonton in his career. “The D have done a good job trying to fill the void but you just can’t replace his leadership, his minutes that he eats up and the skill set he has.”
Since becoming an NHL regular for the 2011-12 season, Ekman-Larsson had missed a total of two games before suffering a bruised shoulder on March 7 against Colorado. Sitting out the previous six games provided a learning experience that the team’s best player never wanted.
“It’s never fun to sit on the side and watch your teammates battle,” he said. “It was frustrating. I haven’t been in that situation before.”
Ekman-Larsson was injured while wrestling for position with Colorado’s Matt Duchene in the Coyotes’ zone. Although he went to the ice after grabbing his shoulder and then slammed hard into the ends boards, Ekman-Larsson confirmed that the injury occurred before the fall.
“It was kind of a nothing play but it was bad enough,” he said. “I did the same thing a couple years ago but I played the next game. I didn’t expect to be out that long but obviously they wanted to make sure I was ready to come back and was strong enough to come back and play.”
The Coyotes missed him in a lot of areas. He drives possession in 5-on-5 play and he is often the player bringing the puck up the ice, but the most glaring deficiency came on the Coyotes power play. Arizona was shut out in losses to Tampa Bay and San Jose despite 5-on-3 power plays in each game. The power play had been faring well in his absence in the four previous games, but it went 0 for 10 in those two gamed which played a major role in the losses.
“He’s the key to this attack, no doubt about it,” said forward Alex Tanguay, who scored that opening goal off Ekman-Larsson’s shot. “He’s the guy you want to have the puck in every situation, especially the power play and 5-on-3 opportunities because he’s got such a high skill level.”
The play with Duchene is not a clear example, but Ekman-Larsson understands that opponents are targeting him more because he is on the top players.
“We try to focus on the other teams’ top players,” he said. “We say every time we play a good player that we’ve got to play him hard and make sure we take time and space away. I think the other teams try to do that to me.
“I had a couple games before I got hurt there where there were a couple big hits on me. That’s part of the game.”
Ekman-Larsson is wearing a special pad on the top of his right shoulder to protect it, but he has little concern that he will re-injure it.
“I did a couple battle drills (in practice) today so I feel good,” he said, pointing to the shoulder pad and smiling. “That’s just for safety. Safety first.”
Ekman-Larsson is seventh among NHL defensemen in points and may not yet get the respect that the top Norris Trophy contenders receiver, but as he approaches his second straight 20-goal season there is little doubt how his teammates feel about him.
“He’s our best player and it’s not even close,” captain Shane Doan said.
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