Barkov back on ice for the Panthers, who lead Stanley Cup Final thanks to scoring from unsung heroes


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SUNRISE, Fla. — 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 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 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 before Thursday night's game, but the star "felt better."

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.

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, whose depth has emerged as one of their biggest assets. Center Evan Rodrigues leads the series with three goals; young center Anton Lundell is emerging as a formidable two-way player and Niko Mikkola had the tying goal in Game 2 as the Panthers rallied.

"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 when he blasted a drop pass from Lundell past goalie Stuart Skinner 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 victory, including the winning goal early in the third period.

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

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 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."

The Oilers, who have just one goal — a fluky one — through two games, hope they will be able to fix the power play that has gone 0 for 7 and get things going offensively.

"They're doing a great job of making it tough on us," McDavid said. "But with that being said, the power play has been together for a long time and we've been great at what we do. We usually solve penalty kills, and I would expect us to figure this one out, too."

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AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno in Edmonton, Alberta, contributed.

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL

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