Sam Bennett’s role change, Ryan Lomberg making physical impact and more Panthers notes

Sam Bennett’s role change the past couple games — moving down from centering the Florida Panthers’ second line to being in the middle of the third — had less to do with Bennett’s performance than it did with the continued rise of Anton Lundell.

Lundell has come up in big moments for the Panthers throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs. This includes scoring the game-tying goal and logging the assist on the series-clinching goal in Game 6 against the Boston Bruins while he was on the ice with Carter Verhaeghe and Matthew Tkachuk, the wingers on Florida’s second line. They trio was also on the ice for the Panthers’ first two goals in their 3-0 win against the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday.

So coach Paul Maurice is sticking with that grouping while it works. That means Bennett, who has predominantly centered Verhaeghe and Tkachuk when healthy, is now with Eetu Luostarinen and Evan Rodrigues on Florida’s third line. It’s a relatively fresh grouping, considering the trio played just 7 minutes and 19 seconds together during five-on-five play during the regular season.

Despite the limited playing time together, Bennett said the transition to playing with Luostarinen and Rodrigues hasn’t been difficult.

“They’re both amazing players,” Bennett said ahead of Game 2 against the New York Rangers. “It’s definitely a little different than playing with Chucky and Swaggy. With Roddy and Luosty, it’s a lot more of a speed game, but we’re going to do the same thing. We’re going to be physical. We’re going to get on the forecheck. We’re going to hunt pucks. I’ve definitely enjoyed playing with them so far.”

The Luostarinen-Bennett-Rodrigues line has played 11 minutes and 15 seconds together since Maurice made the change midway through Game 6 against Boston and has played a pretty even game against their opponents. Florida has a 17-12 edge in shot attempts when those three are on the ice at five-on-five, but shot attempts (5-5), scoring chances (4-4) and high-danger chances (2-2).

“He brings another edge of speed to our line,” Rodrigues said. “We’re a pretty fast, pretty heavy line. We can be dynamic off the rush, but if we can get in their zone, hang onto pucks and wear other teams down, we can be a really successful line. We had our looks in the first game and I think our chemistry is going to continue to build. There’s some good potential there.”

Ryan Lomberg’s physicality on full display

The only thing Ryan Lomberg did wrong to get taken out of the lineup after one playoff game was get sick.

After that, the speedy and tenacious fourth-line winger found himself watching for the next nine games as the Panthers continued to dominate through the first two rounds as its depth was on full display.

“The boys made it easier on me winning a bunch of those games,” Lomberg said. “It’s unfortunately kind of been the M.O. of my career, [being] in and out [of the lineup] so when it happened, I just dealt with it the way I usually do, which is stay positive and work as hard as I can.”

That made it a smooth transition when Lomberg returned to the lineup in Game 6 against Boston and found his game go to another level to start the Eastern Conference final.

In Game 1 against the Rangers on Wednesday, Lomberg had a game-high seven hits despite being on the ice for fewer than eight minutes.

He has 14 total hits in just over 20 minutes on the ice in three games this playoffs.

“It might be the best game I’ve seen Ryan Lomberg play,” Maurice said of Lomberg’s performance in Game 1 against the Rangers. “They didn’t score, so it’s not that, but the technical parts of his game — the energy is always there, the physicality is always there, but those guys were sharp and on pucks.”

Sunrise, Florida - June 21, 2023 - Florida Panthers General Manager Bill Zito answers questions from reporters during his end-of-the-year press conference to discuss the Panthers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final and the upcoming offseason at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida.
Sunrise, Florida - June 21, 2023 - Florida Panthers General Manager Bill Zito answers questions from reporters during his end-of-the-year press conference to discuss the Panthers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final and the upcoming offseason at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida.

Bill Zito a finalist for GM of the Year

The Panthers’ Bill Zito on Thursday was announced as one of three finalists for the NHL’s Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year Award.

The Vancouver Canucks’ Patrik Allvin and Dallas Stars’ Jim Nill are the other contenders for the award.

Under Zito, the Panthers (52-24-6) recorded the second-highest regular-season point total in franchise history (110) and have advanced to the Eastern Conference Final in consecutive years for the first time ever.

Zito reloaded the Panthers’ roster over the offseason, adding defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niko Mikkola and Dmitry Kulikov to offset the early absences of Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour as they recovered from offseason shoulder surgery; forwards Evan Rodrigues, Kevin Stenlund, Steven Lorentz and Jonah Gadjovich to give Florida more depth up front; and goaltender Anthony Stolarz to credit one of the top tandems in net with Vezina Trophy finalist Sergei Bobrovsky. He then acquired forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Kyle Okposo at the trade deadline as the finishing pieces for Florida’s postseason run.

Zito is the fifth person in NHL history to be a three-time finalist for the award, joining Nill (4), Marc Bergevin (3), Bob Murray (3), David Poile (3) and Steve Yzerman (3). Zito is the first of the group to garner those three finalist nods in his first four NHL seasons as a general manager.