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Dave Hyde: Panthers, Lundell take over in third period to stand one win from Stanley Cup Final

When Anton Lundell was a 13-year-old growing up in Finland, admiring the play of countrymate Aleksander Barkov with the Florida Panthers, his family took a vacation to New York. His father, Jan, a star goalie in the Finnish league, took him to tour an empty Madison Square Garden.

On Thursday night, an all-grown-up Lundell wasn’t sightseeing in Madison Square Garden. He was the sight.

He swooped into the New York Rangers zone, put a shot under the armpit of goalie Igor Shesterkin and scored the kind of goal in Madison Square Garden that his 13-year-old self couldn’t even dream up.

“Unreal,” he called that broke a tie for good in their a 3-2 win in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Someone pinch him.

Or better yet, pinch yourself.

This team isn’t dreaming. That was last spring’s theme for them. They’re too good this season for simple dreaming. They’re one win from a repeat trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and they’re coming home for Game 6 in Sunrise to get it Saturday night.

One more win. One more good night. Maybe just one more great third period like they had again Thursday night and they’ll be playing Dallas or Edmonton for the Stanley Cup.

“We just decided after the second period it was time to step up,” Lundell said. “Everybody did. We all wanted to step up.”

They’d met the Rangers’ best game for an even two periods. Can the Rangers produce that for a full game Saturday? Can they match the Panthers when they stepped up their game in the third period?

All you heard out of New York before this was the Rangers stars needed to step up. So when Chris Kreider scored a back-handed goal in the second period Thursday for a 1-0 lead here was double-applause in Madison Square Garden for one of their stars coming through in such an opportunistic way. That’s the Rangers at their best. Sudden. Opportunistic.

The Panthers, meanwhile, keep getting big moments from their biggest stars. Gustav Forsling made a simple poke check just inside the Panthers zone in Thursday’s second period, sprinted down the ice, took a threaded pass from Sam Bennett and put into the net to tie it 1-1. He continues to elevate his game with an offensive component these playoffs.

There it stood after an even two periods when Lundell noted everyone said it was time to be better. “Baby Barkov,” they call him. Much of that is they’re both Finnish, both centers, both talented. Lundell lived with Barkov three years ago as a rookie.

“I don’t think I could’ve had a better guy to be here for me,” Lundell said. “Coming here, had a hard time with the language, hard time with everything living in America. It was difficult. He helped with everything.”

Lundell, to be sure, isn’t Barkov.

“He’s special, unique,” Lundell said.

Lundell’s play took a leap last postseason and another one this spring. Coach Paul Maurice moved him up to the second-line center earlier this series for a while. Now he was back on the third line, and you could see its good work on three successive shifts in the third period. That’s part of the Panthers’ overall third-period blueprint. They’ve scored 14 more third-period goals in the playoffs than opponents.

First, Lundell made a move where he put the puck through his legs in front of Shesterkin to get off a shot. Next shift, linemate Eetu Luostarinen did the same move, creating another good chance.

“I thought it was important for our line to get energy,” Lundell said. “We had some great chances and, finally, we got he goal as well.”

Vladimir Tarasenko moved to the net to screen Shesterkin. That helped Lundell’s shot to sneak through an opening into the net, give the Panthers a 2-1 lead and shift this game completely.

“His history, he played with men in the Finnish Elite League and he put up numbers,” Maurice said of Lundell. “The guy can do some things offensively. I’m just happy for one to go in, because he’s had a bunch of chances …I know the skill’s there, because he’s in the two-hole on our shootouts. He’s lights-out. He’s still young. That’s the thing we always have to remind (ourselves.) He’s still a young player, but a goal in a game like this on the road, Game 5 — and I will call it a bit of a de facto game-winner, because it changed the game.”

Sam Bennett’s empty-netter made it 3-1 and Madison Square Garden started emptying. The Rangers got a last-minute goal, but this night was done. The Panthers were coming home needing one more win to get back to the Final they’ve thought of all year. Not that they’re thinking ahead like that.

“I don’t think we’ve thought about it at all,” Bennett said. “Our approach is one game at a time. We’ve got business to take of still. All we’re thinking about is Game 6 at home.”

They had a good trip to New York — a good couple of trips, really, as they’ve won two of three games in Madison Square Garden this series. They just don’t want to return there for a Game 7.