Barkov key as Panthers beat Oilers to take 3-0 series lead in Stanley Cup Final

For three days, the Florida Panthers patiently waited to see if Aleksander Barkov would be able to play in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.

It’s hard to tell there was any doubt with the way he way he played on Thursday.

Barkov set up the Panthers’ game-opening goal in the first period, scored the eventual game-winner and was his usual otherworldly defensive self from start to finish as the Panthers beat the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 on Thursday at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to take a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.

The Panthers are now one win a way from hoisting the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history and can wrap up the series as early as Saturday in Edmonton.

“It’s there for us, but you don’t think about it,” Barkov said. “You can’t think about it. All you have to do is take one moment at a time. Right now, we’re going to enjoy this win. We battled really hard today. We had a good win.”

Barkov was a catalyst in the win, just like he has been all playoffs.

He showcased a little bit of everything that he can do on Florida’s first goal alone. With the game at four-on-four and about 75 seconds left in the first period, Barkov poked the puck off Edmonton defenseman Evan Bouchard’s stick, charged down the ice into the offensive zone and managed to muscle Bouchard away from him to have just enough space to send a pass to Gustav Forsling. Forsling then flipped the puck toward the net, with Sam Reinhart tipping it past Stuart Skinner to give Florida a 1-0 lead.

“Simple playoff hockey,” Panthers forward Evan Rodrigues said, “and he’s been doing a great job for us all playoffs long.

Barkov then scored the final goal of a three-goal second period — the eventual game-winning goal — with a snap shot from up close on a feed from Evan Rodrigues to put Florida up 4-1.

Vladimir Tarasenko and Sam Bennett also scored in the period, with all three Florida goals coming in a span of 6:19. Florida held off an Edmonton third-period rally that saw them get within a goal with 5:17 left to play.

“It was big for us,” Bennett said of the second period. “Obviously, goals are tough to come by, especially in the Cup finals. It was a big period for us. I think it just started with our defense, and that’s how we were able to generate that offense.”

For Barkov, he now has 21 points this playoffs (seven goals, 14 assists). He and Matthew Tkachuk are the only players in franchise history to log 20 points in a single postseason. Tkachuk had 23 points in the 2023 playoffs and is now at 20 this year after logging the primary assist on Bennett’s second-period goal.

Four of Barkov’s seven goals this postseason have been game-winners.

And this all came with uncertainty about Barkov’s playing status.

Barkov left Game 2 with about nine-and-a-half minutes left in regulation after taking a high hit from Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl. There was concern about a potential injury to his jaw or a concussion from the hit.

But Barkov progressed enough throughout the two days between games to be cleared to play Thursday.

“I felt good,” Barkov said. “I’m happy to be back. That’s pretty much all I can say.”

Meanwhile, Sergei Bobrovsky continued his strong play in net, stopping 32 of 35 shots he faced from the Oilers.

The three goals he gave up: A Warren Foegele breakaway after a mental lapse by Bennett on the offensive end early in the second period, a Philip Broberg snap shot 6:02 into the third that bounced off defenseman Niko Mikkola and into the net and a Ryan McLeod deflection with 5:17 left to play from up close on a Brett Kulak’s shot from the point.

All together, it has the Panthers one win away from their first Stanley Cup.