Barkov’s return from Draisaitl hit boosts Panthers’ health edge

Elliotte Friedman joins Ron MacLean to share an update on Aleksander Barkov's status, how Leon Draisaitl escaped suspension, whether the Oilers are facing the same injury issues the Panthers suffered in last year's Stanley Cup Final, and more.

EDMONTON — The sigh of relief gusting from the Florida Panthers‘ practice facility when Aleksander Barkov‘s feet touched the ice Wednesday morning was so strong, the breeze was picked up on radar 4,884 kilometres to the northwest. In Edmonton, where wind of the leading team’s sweet relief smacks more like a cold chill.

Not that one hockey player would dare try to harm another, nor would one team wish to hoist a Stanley Cup over an injured foe. Let’s not get barbaric. 

But we all know the most gruelling tournament in all of sports is a test of attrition as much as it is one of skill and smarts.

Sure, you need your best players to be your best players. To start, though: You need your best players, full stop.

“That’s the fear of all this for the Oilers and for us. It changes on a hit,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice told reporters in Fort Lauderdale, before chartering to Alberta for Thursday’s Game 3. “That’s the risk the players take in a full-contact sport.”

Maurice was grumpy and curt following Game 2’s 4-1 victory because his captain and most valuable skater had found himself on the business end of a potentially championship-series-shifting hit. 

Leon Draisaitl‘s third-period charge into Barkov’s chin took the Selke champ out of the contest early with a concussion scare. The Oilers superstar served two minutes but received no supplementary discipline. 

Thing is, Maurice lived through something similar one year ago — when Vegas defenceman Keegan Kolesar cracked Matthew Tkachuk’s sternum with a thunderous open-ice check.

Sure, the ’23 Golden Knights were deeper and healthier and likely would’ve prevailed anyway. But once Florida lost its leading scorer and heartbeat, the team was way too hobbled for a parade. (Conversely, the Knights were so fresh in Round 4, Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Marchessault proclaimed they were fit enough to play a fifth round.)

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Maurice’s mood is light again.

The coach says that is because he has forgot about Drai, that he has shifted focus to his club’s upcoming road trip to a hockey-mad land and wants his players to free themselves of Game 2 as well.

Maurice will have the adrenaline thrust of a frenzied Rogers Place and Kris Knoblauch’s dangerous last change to deal with, and getting Barkov’s line to share ice with Connor McDavid gets trickier.

But we suspect Maurice’s tone has also brightened because his best player should be able to go.

“Felt better today. Got through skate today as far as I know. He’ll get checked after,” Maurice said. “Get him on a plane, get him off a plane, get him on the ice, and we’ll see where he’s at tomorrow. He looked good today.”

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And it is difficult to overstate Barkov’s role in nullifying the elite.

Nikita Kucherov, David Pastrnak, Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, McDavid, and Draisital have combined for zero 5-on-5 goals in their 19 combined games against the Panthers this postseason, and that begins with Barkov.

Beyond calling “16!” on the bench in every critical moment, Maurice takes a hands-off approach with his captain, who doesn’t need much coaching at this point.

“What’s that line for a doctor? Rule No. 1: Do no harm,” Maurice says. 

“So, I’ll take it to an extreme and use another player. I had Paul Coffey. So, at that point in time, he’d only had four Stanley Cups and three Norris trophies. I probably wasn’t adding a lot to his game as the head coach.”

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Coffey, of course, is now running the Oilers defence. 

One of his most reliable charges, Darnell Nurse, is grinding through a suspected hip ailment and was limited to opening the gate for the other five blueliners during Game 2’s loss.

At least Nurse could sit on the bench, which is something Oilers 24-goal man Evander Kane seldom does between his limited shifts. Nurse and Kane are hurt, and we suspect Draisaitl is too, as he also broke from Monday’s game for a checkup.

Neither Nurse nor Kane participated in Oilers practice Wednesday. Though coach Kris Knoblauch anticipates Nurse dressing anyway, it’s likely Corey Perry draws back into Game 3’s lineup with Kane in doubt.

We are nothing without our health.

In the summer of 2023, as Tkachuk waited for his sternum to heal, Florida defencemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour both underwent shoulder surgery.

Asked what’s different about this spring’s deep run, Ekblad quipped: “Well, not walking on one foot and struggling.”

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No doubt, multiple Oilers are struggling to skate now. 

Provided Barkov gets the green light, the Panthers less so. 

Certainly, they are healthier now than they were at this point last Final.

“It’s a complete blessing,” Maurice says. “We were beat to death. So, Ekblad had a broken foot, popped his shoulder out twice, strained or tweaked an oblique. And I think he did three of those in the Boston series [back in Round 1]. How much fun was that six weeks for him? (Sam) Bennett broke his foot and didn’t tell anybody.

“We had a whole bunch of those.”

Too many to finish in first place, one might imagine.

One-Timers: Game 2 hero Evan Rodrigues is getting a promotion to the top line…. Vladimir Tarasenko is dealing with “a minor thing” and was absent from Panthers practice Wednesday but should be in the Game 3 lineup. Kyle Okposo took his spot on third-line rushes…. Maurice assures Eetu Luostarinen (knee) and Ekblad (foot) are fine after mid-game injury scares on Monday…. 90.8 per cent of teams that take a 2-0 series lead in a best-of-seven final go on to win the Stanley Cup.

Panthers practice lines on Wednesday:

Rodrigues – Barkov – Reinhart 

Verhaeghe – Bennett – Tkachuk 

Luostarinen – Lundell – Okposo 

Lorentz – Stenlund – Cousins 

Forsling – Ekblad 

Mikkola – Montour 

Ekman-Larsson – Kulikov 

Bobrovsky 

Stolarz

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