SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Before the puck dropped Thursday night for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice tipped his hand, at least a little bit.
For the first time since the second round of the playoffs, Matthew Tkachuk’s line alongside Sam Bennett and Nick Cousins did not start. Vegas Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy already tabbed his shutdown trio of William Carrier, Nicolas Roy and Keegan Kolesar to open the game — the line that had shut down Tkachuk and Bennett so far.
Despite saying earlier Thursday he “didn’t feel it was a matchup series,” Maurice abandoned his starting lineup for 11 games in a row in search of the best possible matchups to try to turn around the final. It took Tkachuk's tying goal and Carter Verhaeghe's overtime winner, but it paid dividends in Florida getting right back in the series.
“We have a lot of confidence in our team to produce offense,” Tkachuk said. “We’ve been a top team all year at 5 on 5, so just because we’re playing in the Stanley Cup Final doesn’t mean we need to change up a whole bunch of things. But we definitely had to make some tweaks going into this game that were going to make us more successful than we were in Vegas. We definitely were.”
Each of the Panthers' goals in regulation came with the players on the ice Maurice wanted: Tkachuk and Co. against Vegas' second line of captain Mark Stone, center Chandler Stephenson and depth forward Brett Howden. That offense from defenseman Brandon Montour early in the first period and then Tkachuk late in the third was enough to offset two Vegas power-play goals resulting from eight Florida penalties.
“We’ve bounced a bunch of people around,” Maurice said. “We had a bunch of adjustments we had to make because of Matthews’ (absence) and then the 475 penalties that were called in the game tonight, so we had to make some adjusments.”
Then Verhaeghe's goal — also against Stone, Stephenson and Howden — finished off the 3-2 comeback victory.
“We have four lines who can play against anyone,” captain Aleksander Barkov said.
The Panthers, for stretches, outplayed the Golden Knights at even strength, able to get churning on their relentless attack that got them through the Eastern Conference and put opponents on their heels.
Much as Cassidy pushed all the right buttons in the first two games of the series his team won, Maurice found a winning recipe to make the final 2-1. There's little doubt Vegas is a deeper team and more talented, something that has been on display much of the season with a first-place finish in the West and then into the playoffs — and confidence remains with the Golden Knights.
"Nobody said it was going to be easy," center Jack Eichel said.
But the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes all looked better on paper than the Panthers, who kept finding ways to win. While some of that is Tkachuk and also goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who was brilliant again Thursday night bouncing back from being pulled in Game 2, Maurice deserves credit for making decisions that led to the ideal matchups — and made the Cup Final finally look competitive.
“At the end of the day, nobody cares how we got here,” Tkachuk said. “It’s a 2-1 series.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno