How Panthers’ Anton Lundell ‘found a next level’ and why it’s key entering Game 3 vs Lightning

Anton Lundell took a moment to ponder the question. The 22-year-old was days away from wrapping up his third NHL season and gearing up for a third consecutive trip to the playoffs with the Florida Panthers.

The question was simple: Where did Lundell feel his game has grown the most since his arrival in the NHL?

After collecting his thoughts, the center answered.

“I’m a different player,” Lundell said. “I feel way more like complete, stronger. I knew I had some talent, but I played a different game for sure. I found a next level in my game and also a physical game. I didn’t really have to hit people that much when I played in on the big ice in Europe so that was a huge difference — learning how to use your body to protect the puck and just hit overall. I’ve learned so much during these three years. I feel like I’m stronger, faster, more mature, and I also have that skill that I’m able to bring to the table when I when I play.”

Lundell’s talent is undeniable. The Panthers selected him with the No. 12 overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft because they saw he had the potential to be a top-tier two-way center in the NHL.

But over the past three years, and this season in particular, Lundell has unlocked another portion of his game that has made him invaluable to the Panthers. Whatever line he plays on, whatever teammates are on his wings, he finds a way to adjust his style of play to best suit the way his teammates play.

Lundell primarily centers Florida’s third line but versatility, from playing a simple north-to-south game to a heavy forecheck approach to a pass-heavy style, gives the coaching staff flexibility to move him up the lineup when the situation requires it and not worry about a drop off.

“Every line is a little different,” said Lundell, who had 13 goals and 35 points in 78 regular-season games this year. “Some guys want to keep the puck a little more. Some guys want to play simple. For me, it’s all about trying to read and know who I’m playing with and try to adjust as good as I can do to make me and and them play even better.”

That will be put to the test on Thursday in Game 3 against the Tampa Bay Lightning — and likely at least the rest of this best-of-7 opening-round playoff series — as Panthers coach Paul Maurice moves Lundell up to center Florida’s second line with Sam Bennett out at least a week due to a hand/wrist injury sustained early in Game 2.

“We want him back as soon as possible,” Lundell said, “but we just try to do our best. It’s a chance for everybody to step up. We have a lot of good players, so it’s just all about the guys stepping up and trying to do your job even better. For sure, we want him back. At the same time we need to be able to be able to win these games.”

Lundell took primary responsibility filling Bennett’s spot once he left early in the second period of Game 2 and did a stellar job working with wingers Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe. In 6:28 of ice time at 5-on-5 with Lundell, Verhaeghe and Tkachuk playing together on Tuesday, the Panthers led 13-3 in shot attempts and 6-0 in shots on goal.

The three also combined on the game-winning goal in overtime, with Tkachuk sending a pass from the boards to Lundell in the slot, who then flicked the puck past a slew of Lightning defenders to Verhaeghe in front of the net to set up a top-shelf backhanded shot that got past Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.

“Lundy might have had four guys on him and he made the play to the stick to me,” Verhaeghe said.

Plays like that are a visible sign that Lundell’s confidence is beginning to match his skill level and a reminder that Lundell can rise to play as a top-six forward when given the chance. He filled in for both Aleksander Barkov and Bennett during the regular season when both missed time due to either injury or illness and didn’t miss a beat.

Now, Lundell has the chance to show he can do the same in the playoffs.

“You always want more, and I guess now is the time,” Lundell said. “I always strive to do my best. I always want to be a key player even if I play in whatever line. I’m just trying to drive my line and be a difference maker in that way, help the team to win some games.”