Bobrovsky provides backbone as Panthers close in on Stanley Cup Final

Sergei Bobrovsky was unbeatable, stopping 32 shots in a shutout effort and set the record for most saves through the first three games of a Conference Final with 132 as the Florida Panthers beat the Carolina Hurricanes 1-0 and took a 3-0 series lead.

Sergei Bobrovsky picked a perfect time for his first career Stanley Cup playoff shutout.

Thanks to the 32 saves he made on Monday night in a 1-0 triumph over the Carolina Hurricanes, the Florida Panthers now hold a commanding 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Final.

The Panthers goalie has now made 67 consecutive saves and accumulated 131 total stops over three games — and it certainly looks like he’s had numerous Carolina Hurricanes players shaking their heads in utter disbelief through three games.

Bobrovsky, who made the 58th start and 64th playoff appearance during his 10-year NHL career on Monday, has expressed gratitude throughout this series whenever he’s been in front of a microphone and after the final buzzer, his teammates once again were tossing compliments in his direction.

“We have so much confidence with him back there,” Panthers forward Carter Verhaeghe told reporters inside FLA Live Arena. “It seems like every day he’s making another huge save, changing momentum and helping our team win games. He’s so important, he’s so calm.

“He’s our backbone and our best player.”

You won’t get any argument from anyone playing in, covering or watching this series.

It didn’t matter if it was a point-blank chance, a redirection in front or fighting his way through traffic, Bobrovsky has been there to make another save — which seems to be a recurring theme in this matchup between former Southeast Division rivals.

Panthers head coach Paul Maurice was asked if he’s seen someone go on a similar run during his lengthy career behind the bench.

“You’ll find that almost all of the four guys left (in the Stanley Cup playoffs). It’s a piece of how teams get to the final four,” Maurice told reporters. “We’re coming in as a wild card, so it’s almost a (prerequisite) for those teams to get where they are, that their goaltender comes up (big). It’s a special time of year.”

Maurice was asked a follow-up question about whether having a goalie on a remarkable run like this one changes the way he coaches or how he experiences the game.

“It wouldn’t change much for me from a coaching point of view,” said Maurice. “If you take that theory to the extreme, at no point would we say ‘hey, nobody has to come back into our end, Bob has got it.’ We have to.

“But there is a different feeling, always, when you get a guy that is just so strong in the net.”

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Outside of not being able to get more pucks behind Bobrovsky, Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour can’t find much to complain about when it comes to how his team has been performing.

“It’s been three games. We can’t do much more. We like the way we’ve been playing — clearly,” Brind’Amour told reporters. “We’ve just got to find a way to put one in. Defensively, we’re giving up nothing. It felt like we hit a couple posts, two or three. It’s there for us, but we’ve just got to find a way.

“It’s just the way it’s going for us in the series. We’ve just got to find a way to break through and maybe give ourselves a chance to maybe get back in this. It’s tough because we have played well.”

The biggest challenge for the Hurricanes is to try and find a way to not be consumed by the frustration or abandon the disciplined structure that has made them so successful throughout the course of the season and in the playoffs.

“How are you not frustrated? There are times when you lose that you’re frustrated because you got beat,” said Brind’Amour. “Now we’re losing, but we’re not really getting beat and that’s where it gets frustrating.

“We’ll pick the pieces up (Tuesday) and try to throw our best at them next game and take it from there.”

Game 4 goes Wednesday in Sunrise, Fla. as the Panthers try to secure a spot in the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 1996.

“We’ll have to be even more desperate next game and find a way to start with one (win),” Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal told reporters. “We’ll keep grinding away. We’ve done it all year. (If you) continue to play like that, something will crack and when it does, I believe a big outburst could come.”

The injury

About the only bad news for the Panthers on this night was losing captain Aleksander Barkov with 7:04 to go in the first period with an apparent left knee injury, finishing with only 3:51 of ice time.

Barkov has been a beast throughout these playoffs — especially in this series — and he left the game after locking knees with Hurricanes forward Jack Drury on what looked mostly an innocent play.

Barkov had the puck along the boards and Drury finished his check, but at the end of the play his left knee made contact with Barkov’s.

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Not surprisingly, given the time of the year and what is at stake, Maurice wasn’t able (or willing) to provide an update on the status of Barkov, joking that he had a Bar Mitzvah to attend and that he didn’t want to disappoint the kids.

When asked if that made it an upper or lower-body issue, Maurice said the event was taking place on two floors.

The injury to Barkov will certainly enhance the urgency for the Panthers to try and end the series quickly, leaving a few additional days of recovery time for him and other individuals dealing with injuries or playing through pain.

With Barkov unavailable, Maurice moved Eetu Luostarinen to centre on the line with Anthony Duclair and Verhaeghe and increased the ice time for a bunch of forwards.

One of those who benefitted from the extra ice time was Sam Reinhart, who played 22:15, including 4:49 on the power play and 1:24 while shorthanded.

“The most important thing was that no one felt that they had to change their game and no one did,” Reinhart told reporters. “We tried to execute the same game plan — and we really liked our third (period). On the shot clock, we didn’t have many [the Panthers only recorded two shots on goal], but I really liked our pace and we weren’t sitting back. That’s the way you’re going to have to win games.”

If Barkov can’t play in Game 4, look for journeyman Zac Dalpe to return to the Panthers lineup after suiting up in nine games throughout the run.

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The goal

Speaking of Reinhart, he scored the lone goal in the contest, burying a power play marker just eight seconds after Brady Skjei was whistled for slashing.

Reinhart won the offensive zone draw, Sam Bennett got the puck down low and found Matthew Tkachuk along the side wall and he patiently waited for an opportunity to find Reinhart in the high slot.

Reinhart took the pass, turned and fired his shot over the blocker of Frederik Andersen, who went down early trying to make the save.

“I was just trying to find a soft area in the middle and (Tkachuk) showed some great poise to be able to wait for it to open up,” said Reinhart. “(Bennett) did a good job of screening the goalie, so it made it easy on me.”

And yes, for those of you keeping score at home, after scoring the overtime winner in each of the first two road games in the series, Tkachuk had the primary assist on the latest GWG.

Tkachuk leads the Panthers with seven goals (including three in overtime), 12 assists and 19 points in 15 playoff games.

Were it not for the sensational play of Bobrovsky since he reclaimed the net, Tkachuk would be the guy dominating the Conn Smythe discussion.

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The non-call

With 2:10 to go in regulation, Hurricanes defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere was carrying the puck in the D-zone and as Reinhart was trying to apply some pressure, his stick caught Gostisbehere on the outside of the visor.

Gostisbehere fell to the ice and the replay showed that the referee closest to the play didn’t see the one-handed swipe by Reinhart, though he blew the whistle shortly after Gostisbehere went down.

As the whistle was being blown, Panthers defenceman Marc Staal was shooting the puck the length of the ice for what appeared to be an empty netter that was going to ice the game.

The men in stripes converged to discuss the play in question and while Gostisbehere probably thought they were debating over whether it would be a two-minute penalty or a double minor, there was no penalty called on the play.

Since the whistle went, the potential empty-netter was taken off the board but the Hurricanes had to be confused by the fact no penalty call was made.

“It’s tough. I could go on all day,” said Brind’Amour, who rolled his eyes when the question was asked. “It was a stick to the face that I thought he called, because he stopped the play.

“Whatever. That’s not the difference (in the game). We’ve got to get more than one anyway. But that adds to the frustration of the game. No doubt about it. Especially when they stop the play. I don’t understand that.”

A minor certainly could have been called, but the way Gostisbehere snapped his head back, it’s possible the officials thought the Hurricanes D-man went a bit overboard in trying to ensure there was a power play.

There’s no way this could have been called a major because it wasn’t a blatant high stick that drew blood, but had the play gone to video review, it would be interesting to see if the major would have been reduced to a minor or if it would have gone the way it ended up being called on the ice — with no infraction and simply a faceoff in the neutral zone.

The Hurricanes had only one power play in the contest to four for the Panthers and Brind’Amour clearly wasn’t thrilled by the slashing minor given to Jordan Martinook after knocking the stick out of the hands of Tkachuk (who only had one hand on his stick on that play).

“I was told early in the series, that’s not necessarily a penalty,” said Brind’Amour. “If it hits his hands (it’s a penalty), but that just taps his stick and he lets it go. It’s not really a penalty and it was called.”

Fortunately for the Hurricanes, the ticky-tack call didn’t end up resulting in a goal against, despite having to kill off a 20 seconds five-on-three disadvantage.

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This is not 20/20 hindsight, it’s reality

It’s easy to point to the high number of scoring chances that have been created, but not converted by the Hurricanes as evidence to the contrary, but with only one even-strength marker through three games, there will be plenty of discussion over the coming days about why Hurricanes GM Don Waddell didn’t do more to upgrade the forward group prior to the NHL trade deadline after Evegeni Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty were lost to season-ending injuries.

Waddell brought in Gostisbehere to provide a bit more depth on the third pairing along with second power play minutes, while forward Jesse Puljujarvi hasn’t been a factor in the post-season.

Puljujarvi is currently a healthy scratch and has appeared in seven playoff games while recording only one assist so far.

The Hurricanes were banking on the internal candidates to get the job done and while they did manage to do so through the first two rounds (even after Teuvo Teravainen was limited to two games in the first round before he suffered a fractured hand), the offence has mostly gone silent here against the Panthers.

If the Hurricanes don’t find a way to rally from this 0-3 series deficit, you have to wonder if adding some offence doesn’t become the top priority for the organization this off-season.

Celebrity sighting

There was no sign of Charles Barkley after talking about attending the game during one of the TNT NBA playoff games on the weekend, but golfer Brooks Koepka was in a suite inside FLA Live Arena just one day after capturing his fifth major at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y.

Koepka, a longtime Panthers fan, was rocking a Ryan Lomberg jersey with No. 94 on it.

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