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Defensive duo Kulikov, Ellerby click together // South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Perhaps it's their hours spent together playing Angry Birds or Flick Kick video games on their iPads, but the recent pairing of young defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Keaton Ellerby has bolstered the Panthers' attack on both ends of the ice.
"They're just clicking," said assistant coach Gord Murphy. "When you're young, you have a little hesitation in your game, so you play safer and a more passive game. When you're playing physical like they are, you could tell their confidence is high. They're playing instinctively because their minds are free."
Kulikov, 20, and Ellerby, 22, took different routes to the NHL. Kulikov, a Russian native, was the Panthers' 14th pick of 2009 and didn't spend a day in the minors.
Ellerby, of Alberta, was the 10th pick of the 2007 draft and has been a regular passenger on the AHL Rochester shuttle.
Kulikov, who didn't score a goal in the first 21 games this season, had a serious case of the sophomore blues until a one-game benching by coach Pete DeBoer against Carolina on Dec. 15 got his attention.
"I found that confidence, maybe, when they sat me for one game," said Kulikov, who leads the Panthers with a plus-9. "It was hard for me mentally. It got me to realize I've got to do something [differently].
"I finally found a way and am just enjoying hockey right now."
Kulikov has eight points in his past eight games, including a game-winner in OT to beat the Devils on Jan. 15. That was the same game in which captain Bryan McCabe sustained a broken jaw, resulting in Kulikov being paired with Ellerby.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Ellerby, who scored his first NHL goal against the Rangers last month, added 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason and has been laying out opponents on a regular basis.
"We're tight off the ice," Ellerby said. "The trust we've gotten from the coaches to put us out there together, we've taken and run with.
"Getting pucks out of our end fast, chipping in on the offense, pinching in. We're playing physical, making room for ourselves. He's a fun kid to play with."
Kulikov may have the edge in points, 19 to 7, but Ellerby owns his pal in Flick Kick.
"Ellerby is currently the high scorer at 259. We'll take that one to the bank," Ellerby laughed.
While nicked-up forwards Stephen Weiss, Marty Reasoner and Radek Dvorak all returned to practice Monday, forward Cory Stillman crumpled to the ice for several minutes with what appeared to be injuries to his wrist and shoulder.
DeBoer said that Stillman, who has 11 points in his past 12 games, will get X-rays before deciding whether to bring up a forward from Rochester.
Earlier, the Panthers recalled center Scott Timmins, who scored his first NHL goal against Montreal last week.