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SUNRISE, Fla. – With one goal, Vladimir Tarasenko fulfilled his coach’s prophesy and helped the Florida Panthers return to the Stanley Cup Final.

Tarasenko’s goal 9:08 into the third period turned out to be the winner in a 2-1 victory against the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Saturday. It was just his third goal of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and his first point of the best-of-7 series. 

“It must be God’s plan or something,” Tarasenko said.

Although Tarasenko hadn’t been scoring, coach Paul Maurice had repeatedly expressed confidence in the 32-year-old forward for the other little things he was doing to help Florida win. In fact, before the start of the conference final, Maurice dismissed a question about whether he was expecting more offensive production from Tarasenko, who was acquired in a trade with the Ottawa Senators on March 6. 

“No,” he said. “Truly, production is highly overvalued right now.”

Maurice acknowledged, “that sounded stupid,” but noted that Tarasenko had scored a “really important” power-play goal in Game 3 of the second round against the Boston Bruins.

“That’s all we need,” Maurice said. “One a series.”

Consider Tarasenko’s quota filled.

“Yes, for sure,” Maurice said. “But there’s more to it.”

NYR@FLA ECF, Gm6: Tarasenko fires it in past Shesterkin

Part of that more for Tarasenko is playing on a line with younger forwards Eetu Luostarinen, 25, and Anton Lundell, 22, and providing them with guidance from his 12 seasons playing in the NHL, including 114 games in the playoffs and a Stanley Cup Championship with the St. Louis Blues in 2019. 

Of course, the Panthers wanted Tarasenko for his offense. He’s scored 47 playoff goals in his career on top of the 293 he’s scored in the regular season.

“I had really high expectation of him based on memory,” Maurice said. “I saw him in St. Louis when they beat us the year they won the Cup and he was so good in that series.”

Tarasenko scored 11 playoff goals when St. Louis won the Cup in 2019, including two in six games in the first round against Maurice’s Winnipeg Jets. But Florida also wanted him for his experience. 

Although Tarasenko joined a team filled with players that helped Florida reach the Stanley Cup Final last season before losing to the Vegas Golden Knights, he’s one of only two players in their locker room -- along with forward Carter Verhaeghe (with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2020) -- who has won the Cup previously. 

“He’s a real hockey professor,” Lundell said after the Panthers morning skate Saturday. “He’s very smart.”

In addition to lauding Tarasenko for his center-lane drive on Lundell’s goal that snapped a 1-1 tie in the third period in the Panthers’ 3-2 win in Game 5 on Thursday, Maurice also credited him for talking with Lundell and Luostarinen on the bench throughout that game, particularly when they were struggling in the first two periods.

“He helps us a lot,” Luostarinen said. “He has a lot of experience. He’s been here and won the whole thing. So, he’s been really good help for us.”

Still, Tarasenko wanted to contribute offensively. He had a great chance with a backhand on the rebound of an Oliver Ekman-Larsson shot 1:48 into the third period, but Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin robbed him with a left pad save to keep the Panthers’ lead at 1-0.

“I’m hard on myself, honestly,” Tarasenko said. “I don’t think everything is OK, but, like I said, when team do well, you just keep working hard and by the small plays you get rewarded like I did today.”

The reward came on a centering feed from Lundell from the left-wing boards, after Luostarinen stole the puck from Rangers defenseman K'Andre Miller. Tarasenko was in front to slam the puck inside the right post before Shesterkin could slide over to make the save and Florida had an important insurance goal.

“I blacked out probably,” Tarasenko said. “We celebrate screaming on each other.”

After Artemi Panarin scored a 6-on-5 goal with 1:50 remaining to cut the Rangers’ deficit to 2-1, the Panthers made sure they didn’t get another one and Tarasenko’s goal stood up as the game-winner, living up to Maurice’s expectations of one important goal a series. 

“I’m happy for him because he wore it for a while not scoring because that’s the thing he’s bringing,” Maurice said. “He brought a lot more this series than that. I’m happy for him, too, and then I get to be right. That doesn’t very happen very often.”

Tarasenko was happy to get the goal, but happier to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup and help his new teammates experience what he did five years ago with the Blues.

“The moment I came here the guys treated me as a member of the family,” he said. “It’s been an unbelievable run so far getting back to the finals. It’s why we play the sport since growing up. It’s what you dream about and I’m looking forward to it.”

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