SUNRISE — Anton Lundell has played in a lot more important hockey games than the average 21-year-old.
The Finnish prodigy already has a IIHF World Junior Championship gold medal and a IIHF World Championship silver medal under his belt, but nothing like the prize he is searching for right now.
The Stanley Cup.
”It helps a lot, of course,” Lundell said off his experience, “But it’s a different type of big game going on now.”
Four games into the Stanley Cup Final, he looks more than prepared.
Lundell has a goal and two assists, tied for the Panthers’ lead in points in the Stanley Cup Final, all the while being a defensive anchor for the Panthers both in 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill.
There were a lot of roadblocks in Lundell’s way for him to get to this point, however.
Roadblocks which involved changing his style of play — and position — multiple times while mastering the ability to be used in all situations.
Lundell seemingly eased his way into the NHL, notching an impressive 18 goals and 44 points in 65 games as Florida’s third-line center and penalty kill ace during its Presidents’ Trophy-winning 2021-22 season.
Then came a sophomore slump.
Lundell had six fewer goals and 11 fewer points in eight more games in his second NHL season as he adjusted to new coach Paul Maurice’s system.
His usual line was broken up with Mason Marchment’s departure to Dallas during the offseason and he had to adjust to a new cast of characters to his left along with a much slower offense than the run-n-gun style Andrew Brunette ran the year prior.
What followed was a series of peaks and valleys.
“There might not be a better example of the change this team had to go through than Anton Lundell,” Maurice said.
“And it wasn’t that he was so young and that he was a blank canvas of a player but a skill player, a perimeter player and a good player. But there wouldn’t have been a lot of heavy in his game.
”He didn’t know that that’s what these playoffs are. That’s what the NHL game is, that is what the great players are.”
Lundell had some growing pains while adjusting to that style, featuring multiple month-long goal droughts and a long point drought which lasted almost the entire month of March.
And the Panthers were having some frustrations of their own, sitting as low as 13th in the Eastern Conference in January.
”We have had to battle pretty much since Christmas,” Lundell said.
”I think it helped the team, and also me, that we had to play very tight games. We had to win some big games and that gave me and the team some confidence.”
The Panthers were in serious danger of missing the playoffs during Lundell’s March lull, dropping four games in a row with eight games remaining.
Lundell snapped his drought with a goal just one minute into a crucial win in Toronto which started the Panthers’ unlikely run of six consecutive wins.
He picked up another two goals and an assist in Montreal the next day to help keep it going.
By the time the Panthers clinched a playoff spot two weeks later, Lundell played enough crunch-time hockey to be playoff ready.
And he has excelled.
Lundell picked up two assists in each of the last two games of Florida’s first-round series against the Boston Bruins to help complete a historic 3-1 comeback against the NHL’s top regular season team.
He added three more points in the Panthers’ five-game second-round series victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, all while contributing to Florida’s shutdown of their star-studded roster.
And now he is having success on the NHL’s biggest stage.
“You can’t describe to a young player the rigors of playoff hockey, they have to experience it,” Maurice said.
”And the best way they experience it is round after round. It’s not just two weeks and you’re done or you get to the second round and you get swept. It’s the physical toll and mental toll of what two months of playoff hockey would to do you.
”It’s invaluable for those young guys and you never have to explain it to him again.”
Regardless of how the Stanley Cup Final ends for the Panthers, who sit in a 3-1 series hole, the future is bright for Lundell.
Many of his Panthers teammates and coaches laud him as a ‘mini Sasha Barkov,’ likening to their Selke Trophy-winning captain for his two-way excellence.
When Lundell was drafted in 2020 — he was the first selection made under Bill Zito — it was lauded as a move to secure Florida’s No. 2 center for the foreseeable future.
”We are really pleased with where he’s at in his development. We just thinks he has covered so much ground — or ice — this year in terms of style of play and rounding his game out,” Maurice said.
”I don’t know what the ceiling is for this young man. He is going to be like [Barkov] in a lot of ways at some point. You’ll be able to play him against the other team’s best and he was a point producer as a younger player, but there is a difference in terms of being able to generate offense in the three-hole and generating offense against the best players in the world. We see that in him.”
“He is a really good, young player who plays a 200-foot game,” Anthony Duclair added.
“He is a real confident young man. He goes hard on the forecheck and you know he is going to be back defensively and making good plays. For Lundy, he can play anywhere, he can play on the wing, he can play center, so he is a real versatile player for us.”
Barkov doesn’t like calling Lundell a mini version of himself.
After all, Lundell stands at 6-foot-1, 185-pounds — not as tall as the 6-foot-4 Barkov, but not ‘mini either’ — but he is also referring to the talent level of his 21-year-old counterpart.
But after working alongside him for two years — and living him at the beginning of his rookie year — Florida’s franchise leader in points is setting Lundell’s ceiling much higher than his own.
”I wouldn’t say he is a smaller version of me,” Barkov said.
”He is already an amazing player — what is he, 21? — and he is playing like a veteran in a very mature way. He makes the right plays on both ends of the ice and is already playing on the power play and the penalty kill, like everything you can put him on.
”That’s very rare for such a young guy. I’ve been here for 10 years, but I’m learning so much from him. He keeps me young.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
THE 2023 STANLEY CUP FINAL
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
GAME 5 (Vegas leads 3-1)
- When: Tuesday, 8 p.m.
- Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
- TV: TNT
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM, WPOW 96.5 FM2, WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Series Schedule — Game 1: @Vegas 5, Florida 2; Game 2: @Vegas 7, Florida 2; Game 3: @Florida 3, Vegas 2 (OT); Game 4: Vegas 3, @Florida 2 ; Game 5: Tuesday at Vegas, 8 (TNT); Game 6*: Friday at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 7*: Monday June 19 at Vegas, 8 (TNT). * – If Necessary
- 2022-23 Regular Season Series (Even 1-1): @Vegas 4, Florida 2 (Jan. 12); @Florida 2, Vegas 1 (March 7)
- All-time Regular Season Series: Golden Knights lead 6-3-1
- Postseason History: First meeting
- How They Got Here — Vegas: d. Winnipeg in 5, Edmonton in 6, Dallas in 6; Florida: d. Boston in 7, Toronto in 5, Carolina in 4.