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Barkov back on ice for the Panthers, who lead 2-0 in Cup final thanks to scoring from unsung heroes

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Stanley Cup Oilers Panthers Hockey
Florida Panthers defenseman Niko Mikkola (77) celebrates after his goal with center Anton Lundell (15) during the second period of Game 2 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. Michael Laughlin / AP

Paul Maurice was in a much better mood Wednesday.

The Florida Panthers coach admitted the previous day that he was "grumpy" after Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, despite a dominant victory over the Edmonton Oilers that gave his team a 2-0 series lead.

That was mostly because of the unknown status of Aleksander Barkov, Florida's captain who was knocked out of the game midway through the third period after Edmonton forward Leon Draisaitl launched toward him and hit him in the head.

Barkov, who is tied with Matthew Tkachuk with a team-leading 19 points in the postseason, practiced with the team Wednesday morning ahead of the Florida's trip to Edmonton for Game 3.

"It's the drive of my mood, right?" Maurice said. "You go through that fear … Nobody wants to lose their captain. And you don't know if you have or not for a block of time, and then you find out there's a good chance you're not going to (lose him), and you're in a much better mood."

Maurice said the team will make a final decision about Barkov's Game 3 status on Thursday, but the star "felt better" Wednesday.

Barkov, who won the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward, is a big reason for Florida's lockdown defense, winning 57.3% of his faceoffs in the regular season and 53.4% in the postseason.

"He's a huge part of our team and a huge piece of our game," said veteran Kyle Okposo, who added that it was "great" to have Barkov back on the ice.

Barkov had a pair of assists in the final opener but hasn't scored a goal yet in the series. Neither has Tkachuk, Florida's top-scoring forward who has five goals and 14 assists in the playoffs.

Tkachuk being without a point hasn't been a problem for the Panthers, who control the series thanks to the scoring of others.

Florida's depth has emerged as one of its biggest assets, with the emergence of players like center Evan Rodrigues, who leads the series with three goals; young center Anton Lundell, who is emerging as a formidable two-way player; and Niko Mikkola, who had the tying goal in Game 2.

"Nobody gets here on their stars," Maurice said. "They drive the bus — we would all agree with that. They're the key pieces. But I don't think any team gets to this point without the 20 guys you're dressing. At some point, they have to be the difference."

Mikkola, the 6-foot-5 defenseman who signed with the Panthers around the same time Rodrigues did last July, scored his second career playoff goal in Game 2 when he blasted a drop pass from Lundell past goalie Stuart Skinner, just moments after he nearly scored an own goal on the other end.

The 30-year-old Rodrigues, who had played in just 16 postseason games before this season, scored twice in Florida's comeback Game 2 victory, including a go-ahead one early in the third that clinched the victory.

Rodrigues has 11 points (six goals, five assists) so far in the playoffs. He's played up and down the Panthers' lineup all year long and moved up to the top line with Barkov and Sam Reinhart in Game 2, helping spark a three-goal onslaught in the third period.

Stanley Cup Oilers Panthers Hockey
Florida Panthers center Evan Rodrigues (17) celebrates after scoring during the third period of Game 2 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. Michael Laughlin / AP

He has more points than Edmonton's Connor McDavid — the leading scorer in the postseason with 32 points — and the Oilers' other two stars, Draisaitl and Zach Hyman, combined.

"It's nice to contribute to a win," Rodrigues said, "and that's what we're here to do. It could be any player on any given day."

Okposo said he believes those contributions are a product of the way the Panthers play — with a stifling lockdown defense that sets them up offensively.

"It doesn't really matter which line is getting those opportunities," he said. "It's just kind of the nature of our game and what we do. So when you see a guy like Evan, scoring a couple goals last game, it's just phenomenal for everybody. Everybody's extremely happy for anybody else that scores. Obviously this time of year, that's how it's going to be."

Maurice added that it has been needed in a series like this one, where both teams' top two lines are so good that they almost "cancel each other out."

"Over all the minutes you play, your elite players have to be great all the time," he said. "But there's going to be a block of time for each player on your roster, and he will be the difference in that block of time for whether you win or lose. And in a couple games in these playoffs, it's been Evan's time, and he's made the most of it."


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