Cote: Florida Panthers are better than Rangers, show it again in an eventful day in New York | Opinion

It was quite the eventful Thursday in midtown Manhattan, New York.

The city’s hockey Rangers spent the night trying to buoy hopes of raising the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 30 years.

And (almost forgot), a few hours earlier and a few miles away by car or incessantly honking Yellow cab, a former president of the United States was convicted of 34 felonies.

When the cheering and/or wailing subsided, suffice to say the Florida Panthers had the better day in Manhattan than either the Rangers or Donald Trump.

Florida won pivotal Game 5 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference final, 3-2, to take a 3-2 series lead -- with the chance now in Game 6 back home Saturday night to eliminate the Rangers and advance to a second straight Stanley Cup Final. (Also a chance to avoid a trip back to New York for a Game 7.)

In NHL postseason history when tied 2-2, the Game 5 victor goes on to win the series 79 percent of the time, and the Cats commanded that driver’s seat in an action-wrought third period.

Out West, Dallas and Edmonton skate 2-2 into their own G5 on Friday night.

Anton Lundell scored what seemed to be the winning goal with 9:38 to go in regulation after the three previous games in the series all had gone to overtime.

Florida added the final insurance goal on Sam Bennett’s empty netter with 1:52 left. He’d earlier hit the pipe on a shot, one of seven near-misses off the pipe for the Cats this series.

“We’ve got business to take care of still,” said Bennett afterward.

Bennett’s goal would be needed ... because Ranger Alexis Lafreniere deflected in a teammate’s shot with 49 seconds left to make the final score. It briefly give the home fans hope before at last The Mecca turned tomb-quiet save for the few Panthers fans reveling in red.

Lundell is a rising star at 22. Some of us have regrets older than him. He’d had two earlier loose pucks at the net but couldn’t cash either before his winning score that was set up when Vladimir Tarasenko’s mid-lane charge toward the net drew defenders away from him.

“We battled really hard,” Lundell said. “We have one more win to go.”

Said coach Paul Maurice: “We have no idea [yet] how good he can be. But we’re going to find out.”

The Panthers had tied it 1-1 mid-second on a Gustav Forsling backhanded gem off Igor Shesterkin’s pad. Bennett fed Forsling with a pass pretty enough to hang in The Louvre.

“We’re a very confident group,” Forsling had said earlier Thursday after the morning skate. “We believe in each other.”

Maurice calls Forsling, “In his style is the best defenseman in the world.”

Not bad on offense, either.

“When he gets up the ice,” said his coach, “it’s the right time.”

Chris Kreider had given NYR a 1-0 lead just 2:04 into the second period on a short-handed goal -- the second shorty Florida’s power play has allowed this series. Matthew Tkachuk fumbled the puck at center ice resulting in Kreider at top-end speed 1-on-1 with Sergei Bobrovsky, who committed early.

“A play I make 99 times out of 100,” Tkachuk said. “A huge goal by Forsy [after that], and then we took over.”

The first period had gone scoreless due mostly to the usual great goaltending on both ends. Rangers led in shots on goal but Cats had the best one when Bennett’s backhander caromed off the pipe. Each team failed on its only early power play.

Florida’s willful defensive tenacity really stood out in this one as the Panthers had all forecheck cylinders firing and blocked 20 of the Rangers’ shots.

“That might be the story for me,” said Maurice.

A ticket to crucial Game 5 was commanding $4,000 on the secondary market as the Rangers angled for the club’s first Stanley Cup in 30 years and the Panthers were confident of their first championship in the franchise’s 30-year history.

By some measures these teams have been so close you couldn’t fit a sheet of notebook paper between them. The series has been tied or within a one-goal difference for more than 95 percent of play overall. The time each team has had a lead is nearly even.

And yet, despite New York having the NHL’s best regular season record, the Panthers are showing as the better team. Bettors know; they had Florida a road favorite Thursday. TV analysts seem to suggest it. Rangers fans must sense it. The Panthers are more starpower, greater depth, sounder defense.

“Defensively we’ve been dialed in,” says captain Aleksander Barkov.

Maurice was asked how his team is managing to contain the Rangers’ top scorers. “Well, I got a Selke Award winner,” he began, meaning Barkov (again) winning the league award for a forward who also excels on defense.

Florida also was super-efficient with only one giveaway. (Rangers had 12.)

Maurice asked who had it. Ekblad, he was told.

“He’s out!,” kidded the coach with a thumb gesture.

Florida’s confidence is built for close games inherent to the playoffs.

“We have experience what it’s like to be down one or even, and we’re fine there.” Maurice said.

A few other separating factors are standing out.

The penalty kill continues to fuel the Panthers. New York was 0-for-3 on power plays in Game 5, making the Cats 12-for-13 on the kill this series and 30 of the last 32 this postseason.

Shots on goal also have been a huge factor,with Florida leading 37-27 Thursday night and 114-73 over the past three games.

And the third period continues to belong to the Panthers. This postseason 23 of the Cats’ 53 goals have come in the third, and the late period served Florida well again in Game 5.

“As the games go one, it seems we’re getting better and better,” said Bennett.

Now comes a Saturday game that could be an elimination victory for the Panthers ... but could also be the team‘s final home game of the season.

Playoff hockey doesn’t get much better than what this series is delivering.