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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Kevin Stenlund, Florida Panthers Penalty Kill Shuts Down Lightning

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Florida Panthers center Kevin Stenlund celebrates with Steven Lorentz and Uvis Balinskis after scoring against the San Jose Sharks in November. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Florida Panthers GM Bill Zito brought in Kevin Stenlund during the offseason to help shore up the team’s lackluster penalty kill.

That part of the game is one of Florida’s most improved, and it has been on display in this opening-round playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Last season, Florida’s PK finished an anemic 76.0 percent, ranked 23rd in the NHL.

It was unacceptable.

Stenlund was a skilled specialist who flew under the radar.

Never was his value more apparent than in Thursday’s 5-3 win over the Lightning in Game 3.

That put Florida a win away from a series sweep.

It was a game in which the lesser lights were the stars.

The Panthers shut down the best power play in the NHL.

The Lightning had four attempts; Florida none.

Two of the penalties belonged to Gus Forsling and one to Eetu Luostarinen, two of the top penalty-killers on the team.

Stenlund managed two shots on goal during his PK time, one on a breakaway after taking the puck from none other than Nikita Kucherov.

He had five shots in all, moving up to a line with Luostarinen and Evan Rodrigues due to the absence of Sam Bennett.

“The big story would be penalty killing,” Paul Maurice said afterward. “It’s such a dominant, highly-skilled power play. That would be maybe the most important thing we did well tonight.”

Maurice added that Stenlund was a great pickup not only because of his PK ability but also because of his general versatility.

He said it was a “major shift” for him to move up to center Luostarinen and Rodrigues.

“He comes to the rink tonight fully understanding that this is what I’m facing here tonight,” Maurice said. “He was mentally prepared for it and excited about it. He was really good.”

Stenlund has played in North America for seven seasons.

Prior to this season, the 27-year-old knocked around the Columbus and Winnipeg organizations without ever becoming a true NHL regular.

Last season was split between the Jets and their AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose. When he was brought up in early December, he was in the NHL to stay and played regularly on Winnipeg’s fourth line through the regular season and playoffs.

Two of his six regular-season goals were shorthanded.

Vegas eliminated the Jets in five games in the first round. Stenlund was not offered a new contract.

Things were a lot different this season.

Stenlund is but one more in a long line of lesser light players that the Panthers’ scouting staff identified as a good fit and available at a reasonable price.

He was signed on the first day of free agency, and is here on a one-year “show me” deal but was offered the security of a one-way contract by the Panthers.

This season, the improved PK finished the regular season at 82.5 percent, good for sixth in the NHL.

It was the Panthers best effort since the 2016-17 season when they were 85.3 percent.

This was a career year, one during which Stenlund notched a career high of 11 goals, including another two shorties.

He played in 81 regular-season games, which is, by far, a career high. His one scratch was due to illness.

Stenlund has been the steady center on the fourth line with many different linemates. The newest depth acquisition, Kyle Okposo, added to the congestion.

“It’s been a fun season,” Stenlund said. “I scored more goals and stuff, but just playing regularly every night is just something big for me. Obviously, I like the way we play here, so it suits me well.”

He’s had playoff experience before, with both Winnipeg and Columbus, but this is his first experience going after an entire NHL season with a team.

“I was a regular last year, too, but it’s obviously fun,” he said. “I feel like part of the team here.”

The penalty kill was unquestionably a major factor in the Panthers’ success this season since the chippy boys from Florida were the most penalized team in the league.

“It’s hard work, I guess,” Stenlund said. “I think we have good chemistry in our penalty kill. It’s just trying to work hard and help each other out when clearance is needed and stuff like that. It’s just fun.”

At the moment, nobody is thinking beyond the playoffs.

Stenlund earned himself a raise and the security of a multi-year deal, but whether Zito can do this, given the multitude of expiring contracts this year, remains to be seen.

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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