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Panthers not worried about Rangers’ home-ice advantage; Tkachuk laughs off Kreider’s mouth guard toss

FORT LAUDERDALE — With the Panthers’ overtime win in Game 4 on Tuesday night, the Eastern Conference finals are now a best-of-three series, and the Rangers have home-ice advantage.

Thursday night’s Game 5 is at Madison Square Garden, and a potential Game 7 would be, too. Only Game 6 will be at Amerant Bank Arena. New York getting potentially two games at home does not faze the Panthers, though.

“We’re just going to go game-by-game, and we can play on the road, too, so that’s not a problem,” forward Anton Lundell said. “Just trying to get some energy back and be ready (Thursday) when it starts again.”

Playing at home has not been a big decider so far in the series. Florida took Game 1 in New York before losing Game 2. In Sunrise, the Rangers won Game 3 and lost Game 4.

New York is 5-2 at home in this year’s playoffs, and Florida is 5-2 on the road. The Panthers clinched their second-round series against the Bruins in Boston.

“At the end of the day, you’d rather play at home than on the road, but we’re two good road teams throughout the whole playoffs,” Panthers star Matthew Tkachuk said. “I think in this environment now, it’s going to be a great atmosphere up in New York for Game 5. At the end of the day, they earned it. They had more points in the regular season. It’s up to us to go in there and win a road game like we have this year.”

Even at home, the Panthers opened Tuesday’s game “tight” and fell behind 1-0. Panthers coach Paul Maurice said that is something he plans to address with the team before Thursday’s game. He said he knows he cannot lighten the mood too much since this is a close playoff series, but he hopes to keep his team from playing with apprehension.

“I think it manifests itself in that we didn’t skate with the puck when we had room to skate on,” Maurice said. “We didn’t want to make a mistake, so you have a tendency to slow what’s going on around you to be more sure of what you’re doing with the puck. And we’re just going to talk about it. You want to maybe sometimes loosen the guys up, apply a little humor, do something a little unusual. At the same time, now’s not the time for the chicken suit, you know?

“Because they’re so serious, you have to be tapped into the fact that they are wired, and there is some tension. You need that. It’s a positive. But it just cannot slow us down. That’ll be part of the message. What did we learn? We’re not nearly as good of a team when we’re tight.”

The series has had thin margins since Game 1 ended. The last three games have been decided in overtime, and Maurice called it “phenomenal hockey” Tuesday night.

“You’ve got to embrace it,” Tkachuk said. “It’s the conference finals. You knew it was most likely going to end up being even after four games. Each game is very tight. I would say that we’ve probably controlled, I would say, three out of the four, and in Game 2 they played really well. I think we like the way our game is trending right now.”

Tkachuk laughs off Kreider mouth guard toss

Tkachuk often skates with his mouth guard hanging from his mouth, and it has become one of his trademark looks while helping lead Florida through the postseason.

Rangers veteran Chris Kreider appeared to have enough of the look, though. He took the mouth guard from Tkachuk and threw it up in the air during Tuesday’s game. It landed back on the ice.

Tkachuk, however, laughed it off Wednesday.

“I told him that was the best play he made all game,” Tkachuk said.

“I just have the one,” Tkachuk added. “Luckily, it didn’t go over the stands. He just threw it up in the air, so I got to wash it off and just use it.”

Tkachuk said other players have taken his mouth guard for a moment before, but they typically just hand it back.

“I guess it’s all game-within-the-game stuff from their side and then from our side,” Tkachuk said.

For his part, Maurice said he did not spend much time ruminating on it.

“I didn’t spend nearly as much time on it as it seems other people have,” Maurice said.