Panthers optimistic that Barkov could play in Game 4 of Eastern Conference finals

Florida Panthers' Aleksander Barkov (16) congratulates Eric Staal (12) following overtime in Game 2 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, May 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — All-Star forward Aleksander Barkov should be back on the ice soon, maybe very soon, and that news brought a collective sigh of relief from the Florida Panthers.

It isn't totally certain if the Panthers' captain will play in a potentially series-clinching Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday night. He left Game 3 in the first period with a lower-body injury.

But it's a possibility, coach Paul Maurice said Tuesday — obviously, a very good sign for a team that is one win away from the Stanley Cup final. Barkov was listed as questionable after the injury but did not return to Game 3; tests and evaluation since have evidently ruled out any major issue.

“It was as much precautionary as anything, to rule out anything sinister,” Maurice said. “We're very optimistic that he'll return soon and when he does, he'll be ready to go. ... We're optimistic that we would see him in Game 4 and, if necessary, we could see him in Game 5.”

Besides, Barkov could have some official duties to tend to if Florida wins Wednesday night.

The Prince of Wales Trophy awaits the winning team in the Eastern Conference. It is typically presented to the captain, and then the superstitions or lack thereof become evident. Some don't touch it at all and pose politely for photos, others do touch it, and some — Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin in recent years — have picked it up and skated away.

“He's a huge part of our team,” Florida forward Eetu Luostarinen said of Barkov. "He shows that on the ice. ... Obviously, we want him on the ice as much as we can."

Barkov took a hit from Carolina’s Jack Drury with about seven minutes left in the opening period of Game 3, without any obvious signs of major discomfort afterward. Barkov returned to the Florida bench after the shift and took a seat briefly before talking with someone from the Panthers’ medical staff and departing for the locker room.

Barkov has four goals — one of them just an incredible score in Game 2 of the East final that drew rave reviews from even the likes of Wayne Gretzky — and eight assists for 12 points in Florida’s first 15 games in this playoff run. The Panthers have a 3-0 lead in the East finals, trying to get to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 1996.


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