Panthers coach makes line adjustments ahead of Game 4 vs Rangers

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Florida Panthers
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Facing a 2-1 deficit to the New York Rangers in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Final, the Florida Panthers could be making some adjustments to their forward line combinations for Game 4 on Tuesday.

Panthers coach Paul Maurice jumbled his top nine before the third period in Game 3, spawning a two-goal rally that sent the game to overtime when the Panthers dominated the Rangers for the majority of that period.

Based on the morning skate Tuesday, it appears the Panthers will come out with the lines they used in the third period and overtime. Carter Verhaeghe will join the first line, slotting in on the left wing as Sam Reinhart moves to the right with Aleksander Barkov remaining down the middle. Sam Bennett and Evan Rodrigues bump up to the second line, joining Matthew Tkachuk. That leaves Vladimir Tarasenko (RW) and Anton Lundell (C) dropping down to the third line with Eetu Luostarinen remaining on the left side.

The big personnel changes come on the fourth line. According to Panthers beat reporter George Richards of NHL.com, Kyle Okposo and Steven Lorentz will join Kevin Stenlund on the bottom line, with Ryan Lomberg and Nick Cousins likely to be scratched.

“I’m not looking for something new, I’m not looking for an answer, I’m just making an adjustment based on what I saw,” Maurice told reporters after the morning skate. “Certain guys, their game changes a bit when it gets stale, and all you’re trying to do is keeping your team from getting stale. I’ll do it again if it happens tonight.”

Related: Jacob Trouba says Game 3 elbowing penalty not ‘anything crazy’

Rangers could see two new faces in Panthers lineup in Game 4

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Florida Panthers at Tampa Bay Lightning
Kyle Okposo (left) and Steven Lorentz (middle) celebrate with Aaron Ekblad –Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Maurice would not give a concrete answer as to whether Okposo and Lorentz will be in the lineup, but did seem to confirm that at least one of them will play.

“It may be one, it might be both,” Maurice said in regard to his fourth-line changes. “Some of it’s health, some of it’s just we think they look different. It’s not as drastic a change, maybe, as you think it is.”

It’s not surprising that Maurice would stick with the top-nine line changes that excelled despite the 5-4 overtime loss on Sunday. Florida’s dominance in the last 25 minutes of the game has been covered in depth. The Panthers out-shot the Rangers, dominated zone time, and created 27 scoring chances to New York’s six in the third period and overtime combined (via Natural Stat Trick).

Plus, there are regular-season metrics to support the changes. Per MoneyPuck, Florida’s top-line unit of Verhaeghe, Barkov, and Reinhart led all Panthers forward lines (minimum 50 minutes of ice time) with a 66.3 percent expected Goals For percentage (xGF%). On Sunday, that line out-chanced the Rangers 9-1 in six minutes and 31 seconds and cut the deficit to 4-3 on Barkov’s deflection early in the third.

However, the fourth line changes come as more of a surprise. The bottom line grouping of Stenlund, Lomberg, and Cousins led all forward lines on either side with an 86.82 xGF% in Game 1.

Lomberg, especially, has had a very active series. Maurice praised him after Game 1, saying, “it might be the best game I’ve seen Ryan Lomberg play.” Then in Game 2, Lomberg laid a massive hit on Jimmy Vesey that has left the Rangers’ fourth-liner out week to week with an upper-body injury.

Granted, the fourth line did not stand out in Game 3. Stenlund, Cousins, and Lomberg all finished the day minus-1 and the unit was out-chanced 2-1 and surrendered Barclay Goodrow’s first goal of the game, which put the Rangers up 2-1 in the first period.

The trio only saw three shifts after the second period — two in the third and one in overtime. Cousins and Lomberg were limited to TOIs of 7:49 and 7:57, respectively, the two lowest on the Panthers.

“You have an idea and a plan — both teams do, both coaches do,” Maurice noted. “Then you get out on the rink, and you have to watch the game, cause what you think you should happen doesn’t always happen.”

Looking at the potential replacements, the veteran Okposo has notched two assists in eight games this postseason. Lorentz has three points, including two goals, in nine games. He scored the game-winner in Game 3 against the Tampa Bay Lightning back in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“It is not the tipping point, and it’s not the thing to put your team over the edge,” explained Maurice. “The energy, that excitement, sometimes you put new players in, and they get pretty fired up and give you a good boost.”

A Rangers win Tuesday would give New York a chance to win the series on home ice Thursday night. It’s not must-win territory for the Panthers yet, but they’d certainly like to avoid dropping a third straight.

Lou Orlando has spent the past two seasons as a New York Rangers beat reporter for WFUV Sports. The... More about Lou Orlando

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