SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Aaron Ekblad came back, and the Florida Panthers made an emphatic return to their winning ways.
Against the reigning Stanley Cup champions, no less.
Roberto Luongo stopped 27 shots for his fourth shutout of the season, Ekblad scored in his first game back after recovering from a concussion and the Panthers easily handled the Chicago Blackhawks 4-0 on Friday night to snap a four-game slide.
Florida had lost its last eight meetings with Chicago, last beating the Blackhawks on March 8, 2011. Chicago outscored Florida 25-11 in those games.
Reilly Smith, Quinton Howden and former Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell also scored for Florida, which took a 3-0 lead after one period and started a big weekend in a big way.
The Panthers play rival Tampa Bay — the reigning Eastern Conference champions — at home on Saturday.
Scott Darling stopped 28 shots for Chicago, which lost on consecutive nights in the state of Florida. The Blackhawks lost in Tampa on Thursday, after winning 12 straight to match the Panthers for the longest winning streak in the league this season.
And while Florida’s winning streak is over, Ekblad’s isn’t. The Panthers have now won 13 straight games with him in the lineup.
Florida was winless in its previous four games while the second-year All-Star defenseman recovered from a concussion suffered when he got leveled by Matt Hendricks in Edmonton on Jan. 10. Hendricks was suspended three games for the play, and Ekblad missed nearly two weeks.
By the time Ekblad got into the scoring column, the Panthers had this one well in hand.
Florida struck for three in the first period, its most since getting four in the first 20 minutes against Philadelphia to open the season on Oct. 10. Smith and Campbell got the first two, and Howden sneaked the third past Darling with 2.1 seconds left in the period.
His was unassisted, and so was Ekblad’s at 2:51 of the second — a blast from the right circle after a Chicago turnover.
Luongo did the rest, getting his 72nd career shutout.
Chicago pulled Darling with 8:23 left in the third, but he couldn’t stay off the ice for long — a faceoff sent him back to the ice after only 3 seconds of an empty net, and then a holding call against center Artemi Panarin with 7:52 remaining brought him back again to face a Florida power play.
NOTES: With Ekblad and Campbell, Florida had two defensemen score in the same game for the first time since last Feb. 10. … The last time Chicago trailed by more than four goals was Feb. 22, 2015, when it trailed 6-1 at Boston. Smith scored for the Bruins in that game as well. … Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville’s final game as a player was a loss in the 1992 Calder Cup finals to the Adirondack Red Wings, a former American Hockey League franchise where Panthers coach Gerard Gallant once played. … Florida is 27-12-4 with Ekblad in the lineup this season, and went 0-3-1 without him. … Chicago is now 10-7-1 after a loss.
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