Eight long seasons. Finally Arizona Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson is back skating in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The last time Ekman-Larsson suited up for a playoff contest was the spring of 2012, when the Coyotes reached the Western Conference final. Facing the Colorado Avalanche in Game 1of Wednesday's first-round series in Edmonton has been a long time coming.
"I decided to stay here and this is where I want to be," Ekman-Larsson, who withstood many years of middling-to-awful Coyotes teams and signed an eight-year extension two years ago, told the Arizona Republic. "To be a part of a playoff team and what we're trying to do here is important to me and it's one of the reasons why I love Arizona. To get this chance to be here with the guys, it's very special."
The Coyotes reached the playoffs after winning a four-game qualifier series against the Nashville Predators, capped by an overtime victory on Friday.
"There was a lot of thoughts going through my mind after that game," Ekman-Larsson admitted. "It was kind of nice to soak it in and think about it, because it had been a while."
Arizona has a tall order, though, in the Avalanche, one of the league's most dynamic squads.
"Obviously you can see their skill," Coyotes center Derek Stepan said. "They have it throughout their entire lineup, but they defend extremely hard, too. They've got shot blockers. We've certainly got our hands full. This is one of the best teams in the NHL, so we better be ready to play."
Colorado sat second in the Western Conference when the league postponed action in mid-March, thus clinching an automatic berth to the playoffs, and then netted the second seed in the four-team round-robin warm-up tournament.
"I liked our intensity through (the round robin)," coach Jared Bednar said. "I thought it got better a little bit as it went on. I think it's hard to simulate playoffs, it really is. It is why we tried to give our team something tangible to go after and have a short-term goal and that was winning the West and getting home-ice advantage."
The series will certainly be a contrast of styles. The Coyotes, even with a couple of high-scoring forwards in Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel, are a defense-first squad, while the Avalanche are among the league's highest-scoring clubs.
"They check, they play the right way. They have a clear-cut identity of their own that they are going to play to I am guessing regardless of opponent, and same thing with us," Bednar said. "We are going to play to our strengths and keep doing exactly what we have been doing all year long.
Certainly the Avalanche have an advantage of playoff experience, with essentially the same team that reached the second round in last year's playoffs.
"With experience you feel better and better," forward Nathan MacKinnon said. "I think for everyone in our group, every year you play in the NHL you realize you don't have many chances and for me this feels like my first real chance to win, which really excites me and I think it excites everyone. This is my fourth playoffs now and third straight obviously with everyone else, but I feel good and hopefully I can be a key guy in the first round."
--Field Level Media