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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Playoff Sam Bennett Returns, Florida Panthers Win Game 5

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Sam Bennett gets past New York’s Vincent Trocheck and Mika Zibanejad to score an empty-net goal - which ended up being the game-winning goal - Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Sam Bennett, the Sam Bennett everyone knows and loves in the playoffs, was back in full force Thursday night to help lift his Florida Panthers to a crucial win against the New York Rangers.

Bennett has been slowed by a hand injury sustained in Game 2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but on Thursday, he played like a man possessed.

Not only did he end up getting the game-winning goal in Florida’s 3-2 win over the Rangers, but he set up Gus Forsling’s game-tying goal in the second period with a no-look pass through the slot.

“I was seeing into the middle and they kind of backed off a little bit,’’ Bennett said of his pass. “I had Chucky on my left as well, and I was thinking about passing it to him. Gus made a great play to skate right to the net, I was able to find the middle, and it was a great finish by him.’’

Bennett played 18:05 on 26 shifts, had five shots on goal and three hits.

Also, for the first time since he returned from his injury in Game 3 against the Bruins, Bennett took nine faceoffs.

His empty net goal was not an easy one, either.

Bennett had to pull the puck off the wall in the neutral zone, before dipping and dodging his way through traffic toward the net. He shot the puck over the head of Adam Fox and in.

With Mika Zibanejad putting a puck off Alexis Lafreniere’s skate in with less than a minute left, Bennett’s goal was a big one indeed.

“We have shown all playoffs that we battle right to the end,’’ Bennett said. “It wasn’t the first period we wanted, but we stuck with it, and that it was we have done all year. It was a great effort from us.’’

Florida and New York were scoreless after the first, with the Rangers taking a 1-0 lead on a shorthanded goal from Chris Kreider early in the second.

But, as Bennett said, the Panthers certainly stuck with it.

Forsling’s goal tied it and the score remained that until Anton Lundell got going off a nice play from Vladimir Tarasenko and made it 2-1 at 10:22 of the third.

“Huge,” Lundell said. “We had some good chances in the third and were playing pretty good. We just had chance after chance and we kept grinding and trusted that we’re going to get the chance, the goal, and we got it. We really just tried to stay on top of them and keep the lead.”

Sergei Bobrovsky, who may be getting sick of hearing about Igor Shesterkin’s play in this series, was strong again in Game 5 and ended with 25 saves.

All five games in this series have been 1-goal games in the third period — with the past four ending by the slimmest of margins.

“I think it is a good understanding of the style of hockey we like to play,’’ coach Paul Maurice said of the tight games in this series. “It almost took us to the third period to get there. … Our game got very simple in the third period, and that was the key to it. We were not trying to break the game open, not trying to make the killer play. We just grinded.’’

Florida comes home for Game 6 on Saturday night with a 3-2 series lead and a chance to punch its ticket to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year.

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

STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
FLORIDA PANTHERS (ATL1) V. NEW YORK RANGERS (MET1)
Panthers Lead Best-of-7 Series 3-2
GAME 6

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