- Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.
The Florida Panthers are bound for the Stanley Cup Final.
Just as we all predicted.
In reality, Florida’s trajectory this season reads like the plot of a classic Disney movie, a tale of plucky underdogs fueled by self-belief slaying dragons and beating the odds en route to unexpected victory. And with all the main characters aligned to make it happen.
Anti-hero Matthew Tkachuk has been the polarizing, productive face of the Panthers’ playoff run.
Quiet, unassuming Sergei Bobrovsky is enjoying a career Renaissance as Florida’s backbone in net.
Breakout star Brandon Montour has brought swagger to the blue line.
Franchise veterans Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad have stepped up to help Florida (finally) reach its potential.
And role players from Carter Verhaeghe to Sam Bennett to Sam Reinhart have rounded out the Panthers’ cast with robust contributions.
The Panthers have made for great theater. They’ll be fascinating — and fun — to watch in the upcoming Cup Final. Let’s dive into exactly what Florida has done so well to become the darling of the NHL postseason.
(More than) happy to be here
Florida’s greatest superpower might be the element of surprise.
Let’s back up: The Panthers were bottom-dwellers in the Atlantic Division for about two-thirds of the regular season. General manager Bill Zito stood pat at the trade deadline anyway, professing his faith in the already assembled group. It was a gutsy — and seemingly questionable — decision.
Fast-forward a few months and Zito is a finalist for GM of the Year honors. Clearly his gamble paid off. Florida went all-out down the stretch to push past Pittsburgh at the 11th hour and secure the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff seed.
Their reward? A first-round meeting with the Boston Bruins, who had the best regular season in league history. Florida was unfazed and won the series, 4-3. Next came the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Florida sent them packing, 4-1. By the time the Panthers matched up with Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals, they looked fully unstoppable and sent the Hurricanes home with a series sweep.
The Panthers haven’t been weighed down by outside pressure. Heck, they weren’t even the betting favorite in any game until they led Carolina 2-0 in the East finals. If Florida found that disrespectful, it never showed. The Panthers are having too good a time to care.
“Why play in this situation if you can’t have fun with it?” mused Tkachuk ahead of Game 3 against the Hurricanes. “There’s no panic in our game. It’s just so much fun coming to the rink every day.”
Every team wants to “ignore the noise” and truly tune out its critics. Florida has successfully done it. The Panthers aren’t burdened by history. They are uniquely themselves. That ability to live in — and embrace — the moment should only continue driving Florida.
The maturation of Matthew Tkachuk
If you missed it when Matthew Tkachuk was in Calgary, the forward has grown a great deal since being pegged by some as a simple pest.
He may be a pest, but he’s actually a multifaceted one.
Tkachuk’s refusal to sign a long-term deal with the Flames last summer facilitated his being traded to Florida in July for Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers’ leading scorer in 2021-22, and top-four defenseman MacKenzie Weegar. Risky? Perhaps. But the Panthers made the move pay off.
Tkachuk drove Florida’s offense throughout a tumultuous regular season with a 40-goal, 109-point effort (ranking seventh in the NHL). He took center stage in willing the Panthers into the race for the final playoff spot with a late-season burst, leaning into the us-against-the-world mentality.
And he wasn’t hurting Florida by taking bad penalties or stirring the pot; Tkachuk was too busy putting pucks in the net.
He’s done that all postseason, and no goal was bigger than his game-winner with 4.9 seconds remaining in Game 4 that finished off Carolina and put the Panthers in the Cup Final. Tkachuk has nine goals and 21 points in 16 games, including the overtime winners in Games 1 and 2 against the Hurricanes. And sure, Tkachuk has been called for a penalty or two along the way, but he’s also been a dominating presence up front at times and come up with the required big plays. That’s what Florida has needed most from its Hart Trophy candidate.
Bobrovsky is back
He wasn’t Florida’s first choice as postseason starter. But Sergei Bobrovsky didn’t let that stop him from being the team’s finisher.
When the Panthers’ $10 million-a-year man in net went down with an illness in March, backup Alex Lyon took over the crease and went on an improbable 6-1-1 run that aided Florida in capturing that coveted postseason spot. Naturally, coach Paul Maurice tapped Lyon to start the Panthers’ series against Boston.
The journeyman went 1-1 into Game 3, when he gave up five goals on 30 shots and was replaced late in the third period by Bobrovsky. Maurice returned to Bobrovsky for Game 4, a loss for the Panthers, but stuck with the veteran anyway.
Bobrovsky then rang up three straight wins to end the series with Boston on a high note. He improved further in the second round, holding Toronto’s vaunted offense to only two goals per game. Bobrovsky became a real virtuoso in the conference finals, recalling his seasons in Columbus as a two-time Vezina Trophy winner while stymying Carolina’s shooters to the point of open frustration after a 1-0 blanking in Game 3. (Jesperi Kotkaniemi breaking his stick against a dressing room wall, anyone?)
Now Bobrovsky carries his impressive 11-2 postseason record, .935 save percentage and 2.21 goals-against average into his first Cup finals appearance. There’s no doubt Bobrovsky being on his game will be a huge factor for Florida.
Montour the minute-eater
It was critical enough for the Panthers’ chances that Brandon Montour craft a career-best regular season with 16 goals and 73 points.
Where the defenseman caught everyone’s attention, though was in logging 57:56 in Florida’s four-overtime victory in Game 1 against Carolina. That’s no small feat, and it spoke to the importance of Montour’s performance throughout the season — and his overall evolution.
Montour was previously a solid depth contributor whose best points total (37) came last year. That he would have a mammoth season in 2022-23 was far from preordained.
Montour has maintained his success throughout the Panthers’ postseason run, stabilizing the back end with a nightly dose of large minutes (averaging nearly 28 per game) and adding enough offensive contributions (six goals and nine points) to make Florida’s back end a real threat.
Speaking of the Panthers’ defensemen, their willingness to block shots in the series against Carolina was an undeniable difference-maker. In the first three games alone, Florida’s defense was credited with more than 30 blocked shots, and several came in the waning minutes of the 1-0 Game 3 win that put the Hurricanes in a stranglehold.
Pulling their weight for the Panthers
Aleksander Barkov has spent his whole 10-year career in Florida. Aaron Ekblad has been with the Panthers for all nine of his NHL seasons.
They have experienced regular-season success (including as President’s Trophy winners last season), but it has not translated to long postseason runs.
Barkov and Ekblad have provided Florida with veteran savvy and maybe even a little perspective. They’ve been through the wringer with this franchise. They’ve answered the questions and wondered about the future. This is their time to enjoy the spoils.
These Panthers aren’t one-dimensional or overly reliant on a single aspect of their game. Florida rolls deep.
Ekblad has been a lynchpin on the blue line, bringing consistency and the same sort of stabilization Montour offers back there. Barkov has scored four goals and 14 points in his first 15 playoff games. Then there are the guys who don’t grab as many headlines.
Carter Verhaeghe is coming off an unheralded 42-goal regular season and has kept scoring timely goals in the playoffs, with three game-winners. Sam Reinhart has batted in two game-winners of his own. Sam Bennett has continuously aced his role as the ultimate set-up man.
And the list goes on.
Florida has beaten three teams that put too much stock into their so-called “best” players. The Panthers don’t require such designations. Florida operates more like an orchestra, where every instrument finds its moment to shine.
The Panthers are making beautiful music that way.
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