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2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Florida Panthers Survive Loss of Barkov, Move Toward Cup Final

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Florida Panthers center Eetu Luostarinen goes against Carolina’s Sebastian Aho during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday night in Sunrise. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

SUNRISE — Despite missing captain Sasha Barkov for a majority of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday night, the Florida Panthers found a way to win.

The Panthers struggled without Barkov during some rough patches in what was a rollercoaster of a regular season.

As the pressure grew Monday, they kept on moving forward.

The Panthers ended up beating Carolina 1-0 in Game 3 to take a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.

Game 4 is Wednesday night at FLA Live Arena and Florida is a win away from playing for it all.

“When someone goes down, it’s up to everyone in the locker room to step up,” Sam Bennett said.

”We had 20 to 22 guys in there step up tonight. Obviously Barkov has been a leader and a force for us all year, so it’s a big hole to fill. But we had 22 guys step up and fill it tonight.”

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Barkov left the game with a leg injury after taking a hit from Carolina forward Jack Drury with 7:04 remaining in the first period.

He did not return.

”It is actually so much more difficult to lose [a dominant player] in game early than [before a game] because at least you’ll have your 12 forwards in and you can mentally prepare for the way the game is going to go,” coach Paul Maurice said.

”But we had a bunch of guys where it is in their game. Eetu Luostarinen coming into the middle, extra minutes on Bennett and [Matthew] Tkachuk. It was just so good tonight.”

Maurice adapted to the situation as he has had to do countless times throughout the regular season. His team ended up shutting down Carolina — thanks in great part to Sergei Bobrovsky.

But Bobrovsky was not alone. Carolina did not threaten the Panthers very much in what was a devastating hit to its championship chase.

“It says a lot about how we play as a team and how we play defense,” Anton Lundell said.

“It’s not all about one guy, but of course, we’re not gonna lie, we want to work out there as much as we can. [Barkov] is a huge help for us. He is a leader and he has been awesome for us all year. But it is a huge, huge thing that our guys were able to step up and play good defense.”

The Panthers are used to being in situations like this.

Florida had to play full games shorthanded due to a mixture of injuries and salary cap problems during a grueling schedule.

While more of those turned out to be losses than wins, it hardened them to be able to handle a situation where they have to play without a top player for over 40 minutes.

”During the regular season, we had to mix up the lineup many times,” Lundell said.

“Overall, we need to be able to win games if something happens, so I think it was a huge thing that guys were able to step up when Barkov went down.”

Luostarinen, who slotted right into Barkov’s spot on the top line, has been a huge reason why the Panthers have been able to adjust in adverse situations.

The 25-year-old has developed into a reliable utility man who can move in anywhere the Panthers need him.

After finding a lot of success at left wing next to Lundell and Sam Reinhart, Luostarinen was quickly able to adjust his game and play critical shutdown minutes down the middle.

It was far from the first time Luostarinen had to up and make that adjustment with both Barkov and Bennett missing significant time during the regular season.

”The adversity you face is easily the best training ground,” Maurice said.

”One of the best regular season games we played this year was in Tampa coming off the All-Star break and we felt like we had to win the next 15. [Luostarinen] and Lundell were our one and two and he came off the wing to do that.

”He has filled all three left wing positions and at least two of the center ice roles and he has played very well.”

FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK

STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
CAROLINA HURRICANES (MET1) AT PANTHERS (WC2) 
GAME 4 (Panthers Lead 3-0)

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