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Wennberg scores in OT, Rangers top Panthers to take lead in East final

Florida dropped back-to-back games for the first time in these playoffs
New York Rangers center Barclay Goodrow, right rear, celebrates with teammates after he scored in the first period of Game 3 during the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs against the Florida Panthers, Sunday, May 26, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Igor Shesterkin gave the New York Rangers a chance. Alex Wennberg got just enough of his stick on the puck to become the hero.

And just like that, the Rangers reclaimed home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference final.

Wennberg deflected the puck past Sergei Bobrovsky 5:35 into overtime, as the Rangers survived an all-out barrage from the Florida Panthers in the final minutes before escaping with a 5-4 victory — one that gave New York a 2-1 lead in the series.

“This is a team,” said Wennberg, who had one goal in his first 31 games with the Rangers since being acquired in March from Seattle for draft picks. “It doesn’t matter who’s the hero. It doesn’t matter who does it, we have everyone fighting for one another. Yeah, maybe I haven’t put up the same amount of points, but we’re a team. Everything we do we do together.”

Ryan Lindgren took a shot from the left point and Wennberg — a former Panther, who was parked in front of the Florida net — redirected it past Bobrovsky for New York’s second consecutive OT game-winner in the series.

Shesterkin made 33 stops, while Alexis Lafrenière scored two goals and Barclay Goodrow continued his surprising playoff barrage with two more scores for the Rangers. Goodrow has six goals in the playoffs, after four in the entire regular season.

“He’s been a key contributor,” Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said.

Sam Reinhart had two power-play goals, while Aleksander Barkov and Gustav Forsling also scored for the Panthers, who’ll play host to Game 4 on Tuesday night. Bobrovsky stopped 18 shots for Florida, which has dropped back-to-back games for the first time in these playoffs.

“Sometimes you want to keep the growl,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “A lot of times in the playoffs, it’s making sure that you keep that energy full, that you cut off your losses and let it go. Then there’s times you want to keep it and eat it and let it burn for a while and find a different kind of energy source. … Tonight, you should be a little growly.”

New York led 4-2 going into the third. The Rangers were 26-0-1 this season entering Sunday in games where they led by two or more goals with 20 minutes remaining.

They made it 27-0-1 — but it took some serious doing, and survival of Florida throwing everything it could toward Shesterkin.

Barkov and Forsling scored less than two minutes apart in the third to erase that two-goal deficit, and Florida caught a break — the right break — with 7:34 left when Barkov was originally called for a high-stick that would have given the Rangers a 4-minute power play. But after review, it was determined that Mika Zibanejad was hit with his own stick and the Barkov penalty came off the board.

From there, the rest of regulation was, depending on perspective, either all Panthers or all Shesterkin.

Over the last 8:10 of the third, the NHL credited 24 shot attempts — all of them by Florida, as the Panthers just unleashed a barrage on Shesterkin. Of the 24 shot tries, only six were on goal and needed to be saved; nine were blocked, eight missed and one hit the post.

None found the back of the net, and to overtime the teams went.

“Obviously, we’re not happy with the end result,” Barkov said.

Probably long forgotten by the finish was the wild start, a complete flip of how the first two games went at Madison Square Garden when Bobrovsky gave up two goals and Shesterkin gave up two goals — not including an own goal and an empty-netter — in 134 minutes of play.

Sunday was different. It was 2-2 after 15 minutes.

Reinhart opened the scoring, Lafrenière and Goodrow scored 25 seconds apart — the fifth-fastest pair of goals in Rangers playoff history — for a 2-1 New York lead. Reinhart tied it later in the first on a goal very similar to his first one, a backhander he lifted past Shesterkin from down low.

Lafrenière and Goodrow each tallied again in the second, Florida answered in the third. But it was the Rangers who struck last, and they’re now just two wins away from their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 2014.

“This team, we have that belief,” Wennberg said. “Maybe not the most vocal kind of thing, but we all look at each other and we know what to do.”

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