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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Florida Panthers Show Off Depth in Game 3 Win Over Lightning

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Nick Cousins celebrates Steven Lorentz’s third-period goal as Kyle Okposo stands in front of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy on Thursday night in Tampa. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

TAMPA —Near the end of the regular season, the depth players on the Florida Panthers had the chance to compete for a spot in the regular playoff rotation.

And it only brought them more solidarity.

”It’s no secret,” Steven Lorentz said. “Depth wins championships and you need guys to contribute.”

They certainly did just that on Thursday night.

Helped along greatly from both their stars and role players alike, the Panthers beat the Lightning 5-3 in Game 3 of this first-round playoff series.

Florida is now in complete control of the best-of-7 series, and can sweep the Lightning out of the playoffs in Game 4 on Saturday at 5.

Yes, the Panthers got a pair of goals from Matthew Tkachuk and one from Sam Reinhart.

But it was the play of Florida’s fourth line — and the goal from Lorentz to make it 4-2 in the third — which played a major role in this key victory.

“There is going to be mismatches and you have to be able to weather the storm at times,’’ said Lorentz, who had a goal and assist in the win. “In the limited minutes we get, we need to bring the energy and just do our best to help keep the group alive.

“This fourth line that we have where five or six guys rotate in, we’re happy for each other’s success. The guys who are out of the lineup, they want to get back in just as bad, but they’re just as happy to see us do well too, so that’s the way it’s been throughout the eyar and that’s what makes this team so special.”

Going into the postseason, Lorentz and Kyle Okposo were on the outside looking in on the team’s roster going into Game 1.

But with an injury to Sam Bennett and Ryan Lomberg’s absence with an illness, both took the opportunity and ran with it.

Lorentz got the game-winning goal while Okposo had an assist in his first playoff game since 2016 to help lead the way to victory.

Both made their impact when the team needed it most.

Late in the second period, Okposo, Lorentz and Nick Cousins had the Lightning hemmed in their own zone before Brandon Montour took a blast from the point.

Okposo had the screen in front, with the puck just eking past his stick, but he picked up the secondary assist on a goal which swung the momentum in Florida’s favor going into the third period.

“It’s just fun to have that feeling again,” Okposo said. “The postseason is extremely special and you don’t know how good something is until it‘s gone.”

Lorentz broke the game open 9:41 into the third, picking up a loose puck that was freed from the corner by Cousins and putting it top shelf past Andrei Vasilevskiy for the first playoff goal of his career.

“I haven’t been able to expect anything throughout the course of my career, so it’s just hard work,” Lorentz said. “That’s what I pride myself in doing.”

With Bennett’s absence, the two centers who had to slide up in the lineup each made big impacts too.

Anton Lundell came in and got the primary assist in Bennett’s usual spot on line two; Kevin Stenlund made one big play after another in the defensive zone.

It was Lundell’s second primary assist since filling in for Bennett.

The last one, of course, was a saucer pass through four defenders which found Carter Verhaeghe for the overtime winner in Game 2.

“He played awesome,” Tkachuk said. “It was very easy to play with him. He made so many smart plays, he was holding onto pucks, he was skating with it, he was putting us in some great positions as wingers, giving us the puck at perfect times. He was hard to play against, really good in draws and I thought he was awesome.”

Stenlund, meanwhile, anchored a Panthers penalty kill which went 4-for-4 against the league’s best regular season power play.

And on each of them, he was always in the middle of snuffing out a chance, disturbing a passing lane, or even forcing chances the other way.

He did that while taking on a bigger role at 5-on-5, centering Lundell’s usual linemates on the third line.

“He was one of those quiet players,” coach Paul Maurice said. “The faceoffs, the body position battles.

“When Bennett gets hurt, he kind of gets pushed into that role in games. It’s not that he is not ready for it, it’s a major shift. When he comes to the rink tonight fully understanding of this and what he is facing here tonight, he was mentally prepared for it, so I’m excited about his game.”

For the most in-depth coverage of the Florida Panthers:

STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (WC1) VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS (ATL1)
PANTHERS LEAD BEST-OF-7 SERIES 3-0
GAME 4

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