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Panthers Coach ‘Agonized’ Over Key Decision Before Game 3 Vs. Bruins

BOSTON — Panthers star Sam Bennett returned to the Florida lineup for Game 3 against the Boston Bruins after missing five consecutive games due to a hand and wrist injury.

But with Bennett back, someone on the Panthers had to come out.

Panthers head coach Paul Maurice ended up choosing to replace Bennett with Nick Cousins. It was a decision Maurice wasn’t fond of having to make, but it ended up proving to be the right one, with Florida skating away with a 6-2 win at TD Garden on Friday night. Bennett received 12:43 time on ice, was tied for the game-high in hits with seven, and registered an assist on Vladimir Tarasenko’s power-play goal in the second period.

“The Cousins decision was tough because he’s a big part of it,” Maurice said, “And I worried about taking a player like Nick out because of the impact it has on the room because he’s so popular.”

Maurice added: “It was not easy and I agonized over it because the human part of it. Everybody loves this guy. I do, too. He’s just got a great personality and I got to take him out of the playoffs. All the things you think about. You don’t let them weigh you, but he’s in his contract year. This is all-important. It’s a sacrifice for our team that we asked him to make.”

Maurice went further into his decision as to why Cousins, who had no goals and just one assist going into Game 3 against the Bruins, became the odd-man out for the Panthers.

“There’s a speed function to it,” Maurice said. “(Steven) Lorentz is a very quick big man. Can get in, get on the forecheck. The real decider was that he’s a center iceman. Sam Bennett comes back in, and he’s fine to play, but if his game isn’t right. So, he’s healthy, but even missing the games that he’s missed in the playoffs, you don’t know what you’re going to get. So, you get into the game, and you go, ‘Sam’s not there. He’s fine to play, but his game’s not there. So what do I do?’ I needed a centerman is what I’m trying to say.”

Maurice also ruled out the options of replacing Kyle Okposo or Kevin Stenlund with Bennet, believing those two bring more to the Panthers at the moment than Cousins.

“Okposo is built for this series, specifically for this series,” Maurice said. “He’s heavy, he’s smart, he can get on the walls. Threw a huge hit in Game 2 on the game-winning goal. Stenlund’s last three games were fantastic for us.”

Maurice will try to push all the right buttons again with the Panthers looking to take a commanding 3-1 series lead Sunday in Game 4.

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