Panthers win, on verge of Stanley Cup Final return



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NEW YORK — The Florida Panthers are on the verge of going back to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year and third time in franchise history because they are finding ways to win close games.

Anton Lundell broke a tie with 9:38 left, and the Panthers beat the New York Rangers 3-2 on Thursday night in Game 5 of an Eastern Conference final in which the teams have been separated by one goal the past four games. Unlike the previous three, this one didn’t need extra time.

Gustav Forsling and Sam Bennett also scored, and Sergei Bobrovsky made 25 saves to help the Panthers — who lost to Vegas last year for the title — win their second straight in the best-of-seven series.

Bennett said the Panthers aren’t talking about a return trip to the Cup final. They are focused on one game at a time, although, the memory of last season is a positive.

“I think it helps a lot,” Bennett said. “Just to know the grind. How hard it is. How much it takes to have success — to make it this far — it takes a lot. We learned a lot last year.”

Chris Kreider and Alexis Lafreniere scored for the Rangers, and Igor Shesterkin made 34 saves in another magnificent effort. The Presidents’ Trophy winners need to win two straight to return to the final for the first time since 2014. Mika Zibanejad had two assists.

The Panthers can end the series Saturday in Florida. If a seventh game is necessary, it will be at Madison Square Garden, where the Panthers have won twice this series.

This is the first time the Rangers have faced elimination in the playoffs this season.

“There is nothing to say,” Rangers captain Jacob Trouba said. “Your back is against the wall. We have to bring our best game to survive another day.”

The go-ahead goal came after the Rangers lost the puck in the Florida end. Eetu Luostarinen got the puck and found Lundell at the Rangers’ blue line. His shot from the right circle beat Shesterkin.

While it appeared the puck was deflected, many of the Panthers gave veteran Vladimir Tarasenko credit for attempting to tip the puck in front of Shesterkin. They thought it might have affected the goaltender.

“We had chance after chance and just kept grinding,” said Lundell, who along with Luostarinen was stopped in close by Shesterkin on shots made between their legs earlier in the period. “We had some great chances. Finally we got the goal.”

Bennett added an empty-net goal with 1:52 left, and it proved necessary when Lafreniere scored with 50 seconds to play. The Rangers never got another shot.

“As the emotion increases in this series — the closer you get to the end, every single play, small play counts,” said Florida coach Paul Maurice.

Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said the series has been tight.

“We need to capitalize on some of the ones (chances) that we did generate and we weren’t able to do that tonight,” he said. “It was like I said, it was tight. The game was tight. I thought we had looks and I thought we had chances and they didn’t go in. Came down to one goal. So it’s a 2-1 game.”

Kreider and Zibanejad, who were scoreless in the first four games of the series, combined to give New York the lead with a short-handed goal at 2:04 of the second period.

Kreider broke up a Florida play at the blue line, nudged the puck to Zibanejad and then took a return pass entering the offensive zone and beat Bobrovsky with a nifty backhand move, evoking a roar that shook Madison Square Garden.

It was Kreider’s eighth goal of the playoffs and the Rangers’ sixth short-handed, tying the team postseason record set in 1978-79. New York went on to the Stanley Cup Final, losing to Montreal in five games.

Forsling tied it a little more than six minutes later, taking a perfect pass from Bennett and beating Shesterkin with a backhander that the goalie deflected but not enough to keep it out of the net. It was the defenseman’s fourth goal and 11th point of the playoffs.

Both teams had great chances in the scoreless first period with Bobrovsky stopping Filip Chytil and Vincent Trocheck in close, and Shesterkin turning aside Kevin Stenlund and getting a little help from a post on Bennett’s backhander from point-blank range.



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