North America will face challenge from Sweden without Aaron Ekblad
TORONTO (AP) A hit by Finland's Leo Komarov on Aaron Ekblad changed Team North America's course at the World Cup of Hockey.
Ekblad has left the team and will not return for the rest of the tournament, so North America goes into its final round-robin game against unbeaten Sweden on Wednesday without its best defenseman.
Florida Panthers general manager Tom Rowe told reporters that Ekblad was concussed. North America GM Peter Chiarelli said Ekblad will be evaluated and continue his rehab with Panthers team doctors.
''Aaron was a very important part of our defense core here and a key leader on this team,'' Chiarelli said. ''We wish him all the best in his recovery.''
North America now must soldier on without the player who had the most ice time in the tournament opener.
"Aaron would have liked to stay w/ his teammates.. we respect the decision for him to continue evaluation & rehabilitation in Florida" (2/2)— Team North America (@TeamNA_WCH) September 20, 2016
''He's a great player,'' goaltender Matt Murray said. ''He seems like a 10-year veteran and he's only 20 years old. Yeah, we'll miss him.''
Without Ekblad, the 2014 No. 1 draft pick who's already an NHL franchise defenseman, North America will need to lean heavier on Morgan Rielly, Colton Parayko and Shayne Gostisbehere in a crucial game.
''The whole team has to be prepared to play more minutes, and rise to the challenge and take care of each other defensively,'' Rielly said. ''You have to learn on the fly a little bit.''
Coach Todd McLellan praised the play of replacement Jacob Trouba but also lamented Ekblad's absence. On a team of 23-and-under Americans and Canadians, youth was a weakness during a rough 10-minute stretch against Russia.
''When you're a group of young players, you're looking for somebody just to take charge and settle it down, maybe get a shift or two under your belt, and we didn't get that quick enough,'' McLellan said.
North America has no choice but to roll with Rielly, Parayko, Gostisbehere, Trouba, Ryan Murray and Seth Jones.
''Would we love to have Aaron Ekblad? Absolutely,'' McLellan said. ''If we don't, we feel good about the group that we have.''
Here are some things to watch when North America faces Sweden:
WILL MURRAY PLAY: Murray vs. John Gibson is the decision in goal. Murray stopped the first 15 shots he faced against Russia before allowing four goals on consecutive shots and jammed his thumb in the game, but he also won the Stanley Cup and is 8-0 with a 1.60 goals-against average and .935 save percentage after a loss in his NHL career.
''That does factor into our decision,'' McLellan said.
WILL MURRAY PLAY, PART II: North America's other Murray, defenseman Ryan Murray, left practice Tuesday. McLellan said it was a ''maintenance day'' and expects him to play against Sweden, but if he can't then North America would have to dress 13 forwards and five defensemen.
''You usually want six,'' Trouba said.
HEN-RIK: Sweden goaltender Henrik Lundqvist returned from a one-game absence because of illness to post a 36-save shutout against Finland on Tuesday. Lundqvist would like to play the second half of the back-to-back, but that's a major question for Sweden.
SWEDISH D-LIGHT: The all-world blue line led by Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been as good as advertised for Sweden, which has allowed one goal in two games. Hedman and Stralman, defense partners on the Tampa Bay Lightning, look in sync as if it's midseason.
MCDAVID WATCH: North America captain Connor McDavid was superb against Russia, setting up a goal by Auston Matthews. Now that the pressure's on, McDavid could be even better and produce more offense.
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .