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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: Panthers two games from the Cup — and good news is Aleksander Barkov sounds like he’ll play in them

Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov moves the puck Edmonton Oilers center Mattias Janmark during the second period of Game 2 of the 2024 Stanley Cup Final at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise on Monday, June 10, 2024.  (Tribune News Service)
By Dave Hyde South Florida Sun-Sentinel

SUNRISE, Fla. – Leon Draisaitl wasn’t sorry.

“It’s just a hit,” the Edmonton star said.

Just a hit. Nothing more.

“I don’t think there’s anything dirty about it,” he said.

The question was if his “frustration” midway through the third period of the Florida Panthers’ eventual 4-1 win led him to deliver an elbow-leading hit to Aleksander Barkov’s head with such force that he jumped off the ice into the Panthers captain.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I got him a little high, but certainly not with an intent to injure or anything like that.”

There were two stories out of the Panthers taking a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final on Monday night. There’s the story of the Panthers taking control since the third period of Game 1, of Edmonton’s star-studded offense being shut down to seven shots in the first two periods of Game 2, of the Panthers’ Evan Rodrigues having three more goals this series than Connor McDavid, Draisaitl and Zach Hyman combined – than the entire Edmonton team’s one goal, if you want to do the surprising math.

“Pretty cool,” Rodrigues said.

So, there’s that story that the Panthers got out of these first two games just what they wanted in a manner they wanted, too. They found their game. They shut down the top offense this NHL postseason. They’ve given up just one goal in two games to a team averaging 3.54 goals each playoff game before this series.

“I certainly have a lot more to give,” Draisaitl said. “Not my best tonight.”

Then there’s the second story. It left the team that’s two wins from a championship parade down the New River in a dark mood. Their best player, their Dan Marino on ice, their Dwyane Wade on skates, slumped to the ice after that illegal hit from Draisaitl and, after long minutes on it, had to be helped to the locker room. He missed the final nine minutes of the game.

“This isn’t the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show,’ ” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said late Monday night about his thoughts on the hit. “My feelings don’t matter.”

By early afternoon on Tuesday, the mood lightened some as Barkov, “felt better,” Maurice said. “He feels good. But you’ve got to give it then another 24 hours to make sure he’s still feeling strong. If he continues to progress, we should be in good shape.”

The referees somehow didn’t seem to see the hit, then after conferring just gave it a pedestrian two-minute penalty. Would the league step in with a suspension of Draisaitl? Or is this considered a nasty part of the NHL officials are fine with?

“It’s done,” Maurice said. “The refs called the penalty on the ice (roughing on Draisaitl). The league looks at every single hit. They’ll make their decision, and then we’re not dealing with that any more. Part of that is to have the mental discipline to leave that game where it is regardless of the result … I’ll stay out of it. It’s done for me.”

There’s already a decision to be made if Edmonton’s Warren Foegele gets more than Monday’s game suspension for his knee-on-knee hit that sent Eetu Luostarinen to the ice (he returned). But another line was crossed on the Barkov hit, the Panthers felt, and you could see it by how words had to be pulled slowly and unevenly from them afterward.

The prime question in the hours after the game was how badly Barkov was hurt. Sore jaw? Broken bone? Maurice seemed to suggest there was no concussion, though the NHL doesn’t have the NFL term of “concussion protocol” in its glossary.

“Upper body injury” and “lower body injury” are the NHL’s terms, in part to protect players from opponents knowing the specifics of an injury. That’s more nuanced than a generation ago when the “diagonal rule” often was in play in NHL disclosures. If a team said a player’s left shoulder was injured back then, it often was his right ankle.

The Panthers were on the other side of a similar hit a month ago when Sam Bennett reacted to an impending check by Boston’s Brad Marchand by stick-in-hand hitting Marchand in the jaw. The Boston captain missed two games but offered the unwritten code of playoff hockey.

“People don’t want to say it, but part of the playoffs is trying to hurt every player on the other team,” Marchand said. “And the more guys you take out, the more advantage your team has. And people don’t say that. But that’s just a fact of the game.

“So every time you step on the ice, someone’s trying to hurt someone. And that’s just how it goes in the playoffs.”

That’s how it looked when Draisaitl launched himself into Barkov. The first impact was Barkov down on the ice. The impact to the series couldn’t be bigger if Barkov is affected moving forward, starting with Thursday night’s game in Edmonton. He’s the first line of defense against McDavid. He’s the train through the middle of the Panthers’ top line. His absence shifts the Panthers lineup.

“I thought it was part of the game,” McDavid said of Draisaitl’s hit.

The Panthers did exactly what they wanted these two games . They’re two games from a title. The question is if they can get those two games without their best player for a bit.

“We’re hoping he’s OK,” Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said.

Maurice made it sound like Barkov will be OK. A series might ride on it.