Blake Wheeler of the Rangers skates against Brandon Montour of the...

Blake Wheeler of the Rangers skates against Brandon Montour of the Panthers during the first period in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amerant Bank Arena on Tuesday in Sunrise, Fla. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Blake Wheeler, standup guy, sat at a table in the Rangers’ hotel Wednesday morning and took complete responsibility for the hooking penalty that led to the power-play goal that gave the Florida Panthers a 3-2 victory Tuesday night in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final.

Wheeler, playing his first game since suffering an ugly-looking leg injury Feb. 15 against Montreal, had just hopped over the boards and onto the ice, 43 seconds into overtime, when Mika Zibanejad turned the puck over at the Florida blue line. The puck came back quickly to the Rangers’ end, and Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov was breaking up the middle with the 6-5, 222-pound Wheeler caught flat-footed at the Rangers' blue line.

The choice for Wheeler: Hook Barkov, knowing he’d be taking a penalty in the first minute of overtime, or let him go in alone on goalie Igor Shesterkin.

He hooked him.

“I wish I wasn't racing back down the ice, especially with the guy [Barkov] that I'm chasing,’’ Wheeler said. “I've replayed it a million times, between last night and this morning, and you know, I own that play. I talked to Shesty about it after, and asked him if he would prefer me to just let [Barkov] take that look. I mean, if there's anyone I trust to make that save, it's him.

“But I think if I had to do it all over again, I do the same thing.’’

The Panthers ended up taking advantage when Barkov passed to a wide-open Sam Reinhart in the slot for a one-timer that beat Ryan Lindgren's sliding block attempt and got up over Shesterkin’s glove for the winner, at 1:12 of the extra session. It tied the best-of-seven series at 2-2, with Game 5 Thursday at Madison Square Garden.

It was the third straight overtime game between the teams, and the first one the Panthers had won. But after having lost Game 1 of the series at the Garden last Wednesday and winning Game 3 on Sunday afternoon, the Rangers at least got a split in Florida and regained home ice advantage for the series.

“At the end of the day, we got home ice back again,’’ defenseman Braden Schneider said. “I think coming with a 1-1 [trip to Florida] and making it best-of-3 now… I like where we're sitting. I like our group a lot and I think we have to make sure that we're ready to go for the next one.’’

Wheeler had worked hard to make himself part of the group again after missing the final 28 games of the season and the first 13 playoff games. He returned to practice with a red no-contact jersey on May 6, and a week later put a regular-colored jersey on and began practicing fully.

On Tuesday, coach Peter Laviolette chose to insert him to replace Filip Chytil, who himself was returning from a long-term absence for injury-related reasons. Chytil is assumed to have suffered a concussion in early November and missed six months before returning in the last series against Carolina. And after he’d played the first three games of the series against Florida – over the course of five days – the team decided to rest him in Game 4.

So that gave Laviolette an opportunity to get Wheeler into a game, if for no other reason than to get his legs moving at game speed, in case they really need him later in the playoffs.

“He's been working for a long time to be a player in the playoffs and in the series,’’ Laviolette said. “There was an opening last night, and an opportunity to put a player in play. And through communication with Blake over the last five to seven days, everything that we saw off the ice, and on the ice, led us to believe that he was a player.’’

Wheeler said all the time he was practicing, he never actually thought about when and how he would get back in the lineup.

“It didn't get that far in the vision,’’ he said. “My goal was to get healthy, [to] just be available, be an option. I didn't get to the point of, ‘Okay, now how do I get in the lineup?’

“I never wanted it to be about me,’’ he said. “I wanted to be available if something comes up, and, you know, I can help. I just wanted to be available for the team.’’

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