Panthers return home with chance to close out Rangers

After the New York Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy to attain home ice advantage throughout the postseason, comparisons to their 1994 Stanley Cup championship were omnipresent, especially as they won their first seven playoff games.

One comparison the Rangers were hoping to avoid was a 3-2 series deficit and the need to win two elimination games in the Eastern Conference final, like they did in a classic series against the New Jersey Devils on the way to that ’94 title.

A key difference from 30 years ago is that the Florida Panthers are the defending conference champions, who can end any parallels to New York’s last championship run. The Panthers can advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in team history by winning Game 6 on Saturday night in Sunrise, Fla.

If New York can extend the series, it will send the series back to its home ice for Game 7 on Monday.

Florida is in its current position after winning the past two games to counter New York’s overtime victories in Games 2 and 3.

The Panthers continued to dominate third periods and earned a 3-2 victory Thursday when Anton Lundell snapped a tie with 9:38 remaining and Sam Bennett added an empty-netter with just under two minutes remaining that proved to be the difference.

The Panthers have 23 goals in the third period during the postseason, including six in the current series. Lundell’s goal occurred as the Panthers outshot the Rangers 16-10 in the final 20 minutes.

“Our approach is one game at a time,” Bennett said. “We’ve got business to take care of still and all we’re thinking about is Game 6 at home. Our entire focus is on that game right now.”

Said Florida captain Aleksander Barkov: “Right now, we just need to recover and think about that and when the game comes, you think about the game. That’s all we can do.”

The Panthers are attempting to become the fourth team to reach the Stanley Cup Final in consecutive seasons since 2005-06. If they can close out the series, they can join the Tampa Bay Lightning (2020-22), Pittsburgh Penguins (2008-09 and 2016-17) and Detroit Red Wings (2008-09) as back-to-back Stanley Cup finalists.

The Panthers also will try to oust a Presidents’ Trophy team for the second straight season after overcoming a 3-1 deficit to beat the Boston Bruins in the 2023 first round.

The Rangers are 1-for-14 on the power play in the series and hope to avoid what unfolded two years ago in the Eastern Conference final when they held home-ice advantage and dropped Game 6 on the road to Tampa Bay after a 3-1 loss in Game 5.

Chris Kreider scored a short-handed goal for New York in the Game 5 loss on Thursday. Alexis Lafreniere scored in the final minute and Mika Zibanejad collected two assists.

Kreider had not scored since his natural hat trick helped the Rangers close out the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round, while Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin have taken a combined 25 shots on goal and been unable to score in the series.

“Backs against the wall here,” New York defenseman Adam Fox said. “We are a pretty resilient group. I think we have responded well all year to situations where we want to get a win. Obviously, season on the line going there. Just need to get the win there.”