Johnston: What I'm hearing about Barkov's availability for Game 3, why Draisaitl wasn't suspended

EDMONTON — All signs are pointing to Aleksander Barkov being healthy enough to return for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, keeping all of the stars in this star-studded series still in play with the venue shifting to Rogers Place.

The Florida Panthers captain missed the final 9:28 of Monday’s game after taking a hard, high hit from Leon Draisaitl along the boards. Barkov initially tried to get up off the ice, before falling again, which raised alarm bells about his potential availability moving forward with the Panthers just two wins away from winning their first Stanley Cup championship.

However, Barkov avoided a broken jaw on the play, according to a league source, and skated without any extra facial protection at the Panthers’ practice facility on Wednesday morning before the team eventually traveled north to Edmonton.

Florida coach Paul Maurice was notably more chipper when speaking to reporters about Barkov than he had been after his team’s 4-1 win in Game 2.

“It’s the driver of my mood, right?” Maurice said. “Yeah, you go through that — fear maybe is the right word. No one wants to lose their captain. And you don’t know if you have lost him for a block of time.

“Then you find out you might not have, you’re in a much better mood.”

There was at least the possibility Edmonton might have lost Draisaitl to suspension because of his role in the incident, although the NHL’s Department of Player Safety ultimately ruled that it didn’t rise to that level.

According to sources familiar with the decision-making process, the DoPS didn’t like that Draisaitl’s right forearm came up while delivering the check or that he left his feet in the process. But they also didn’t see it as a “chicken wing”-type hit where a player fully extends his arm and elbow with the clear intent of catching an opponent’s head.

It worked in Draisaitl’s favor that he has no prior suspension history and also that this is the Stanley Cup Final.

The games are worth much more right now than when a ruling is made in November or even in Round 1. During the playoffs, especially, the health status of a player on the wrong end of a questionable incident is also factored in because there’s obviously more incentive to take liberties against an opponent throughout the course of a best-of-seven than in the regular season.

When reviewing the Draisaitl-Barkov incident from every available angle, members of the DoPS also felt there were more violent hits delivered in the series that received much less media or fan attention because they didn’t involve two of the best players in the series.

Historically, suspensions during the Stanley Cup Final are extremely rare.

When Vancouver Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome was suspended for the final four games of the 2011 series against the Boston Bruins for a late hit on Nathan Horton, a significant part of the rationale for that decision was that it was immediately apparent Horton wouldn’t be eligible to return either, according to a league source.

The Panthers won’t make a final decision on Barkov’s official status for Game 3 until after Thursday’s morning skate at Rogers Place. But they clearly expect him to play.

“Obviously, it’s a good thing he’s feeling better, and, yeah, (I’m) just looking forward to seeing him play the next game,” teammate Eetu Luostarianen said.

While the temperature in the series went up considerably from Game 1 to Game 2, the Panthers were focused on trying to keep the lid on their emotions as they entered a hostile environment with a championship within reach.

“I think we just have to stay out of it,” Luostarianen said. “Just do our thing and then let them try to do stupid stuff like that. Yeah, just be disciplined.”

The Oilers, meanwhile, are trying to harness the energy from a partisan crowd in order to get themselves back in the series.

Edmonton head coach Kris Knoblauch also told reporters Wednesday that he hoped to use the last line change to create more-favorable matchups than they had in the games at Amerant Bank Arena — which presumably include getting some of his top players away from Barkov and Panthers defenseman Gustav Forsling.

Inside the Oilers dressing room, it didn’t sound like they expected the amount of physicality to go down.

“Overall, I think it’s about where I expected,” defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. “Nothing crazy. Obviously, we know that that’s something that they thrive in and they like to do. A lot of that physicality. At the same time I feel like every time they’ve stepped over the line, the refs have stepped in and called a penalty.

“So that’s kind of what we expect, as well.”

(Top photo of Aleksander Barkov: Jim Rassol / USA Today)

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