How the Florida Panthers got to the 2023 Stanley Cup Finals
The Florida Panthers are heading to the Stanley Cup Finals.
As we all predicted.
In reality, Florida’s trajectory this season reads like the plot of a classic Disney movie, a tale of brave underdogs fueled by self-confidence slaying dragons and beating the odds en route to an unexpected victory. And with all the main characters lined up to make it happen.
Anti-hero Matthew Tkachuk has been the polarizing and productive face of the Panthers playoff series.
Quiet and unassuming, Sergei Bobrovsky is enjoying a career renaissance as Florida’s backbone in goal.
Breakout star Brandon Montour brought arrogance to the blue line.
Franchise veterans Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad have stepped up to help Florida (finally) reach its potential.
And actors from Carter Verhaeghe to Sam Bennett to Sam Reinhart rounded out the Panthers cast with solid contributions.
The Panthers did some great theater. They will be fascinating – and fun – to watch in the next Cup final. Let’s dive into exactly what Florida did so well to become the NHL’s playoff darling.
(more than) happy to be here
Florida’s biggest superpower might be the element of surprise.
Backtracking: The Panthers were the last inhabitants of the Atlantic Division for about two-thirds of the regular season. General manager Bill Zito stuck to the trade deadline anyway, professing his faith in the already-assembled group. It was a brave – and apparently questionable – decision.
Fast forward a few months and Zito is a finalist for General Manager of the Year honors. Obviously, his bet paid off. Florida pulled out all the stops to overtake Pittsburgh in the 11th hour and secure the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Their reward? A first-round encounter with the Boston Bruins, who had the best regular season in league history. Florida was unfazed and won the series, 4-3. Then come the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Florida folds them, 4-1. By the time the Panthers faced Carolina in the Eastern Conference Finals, they looked totally unstoppable and sent the Hurricanes home with a series sweep.
The Panthers weren’t weighed down by outside pressure. Heck, they weren’t even betting favorites in any game until they led Carolina 2-0 in the Eastern Finals. If Florida found it 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?” Tkachuk mused before Game 3 against the Hurricanes. “There’s no panic in our game. It’s so much fun to come to the rink every day.”
Every team wants to “ignore the noise” and truly ignore their detractors. Florida did it successfully. The Panthers are not burdened with history. They are only themselves. That ability to live — and embrace — the moment should only continue to drive Florida.
The maturing of Matthew Tkachuk
If you missed him when Matthew Tkachuk was in Calgary, the forward has grown a lot since being considered a pest by some.
It may be a pest, but it is actually a multifaceted pest.
Tkachuk’s refusal to sign a long-term deal with the Flames last summer facilitated his trade to Florida in July for Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers’ leading scorer in 2021-22, and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, who is among the first four. Risk? Maybe. But the Panthers made the move pay off.
Tkachuk led Florida’s offense through a tumultuous regular season with a 40-goal, 109-point effort (ranking seventh in the NHL). He took center stage as he put the Panthers in the race for the final playoff spot with a late-season flurry, leaning into the us vs. 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 for all of the playoffs, and no goal was bigger than his winner with 4.9 seconds left in Game 4 that finished Carolina and put the Panthers in the Cup final. Tkachuk has nine goals and 21 points in 16 games, including the overtime winners of Games 1 and 2 against the Hurricanes. And sure, Tkachuk got called for a penalty or two along the way, but he was also a dominant offensive presence at times and made the big plays required. That’s what Florida needed most from its Hart Trophy contender.
Bobrovsky is back
He wasn’t Florida’s first pick as a playoff starter. But Sergei Bobrovsky didn’t let that stop him from being the team’s finisher.
When the $10million-a-year Panthers man in net fell ill in March, replacement Alex Lyon picked up the crease and rode an unlikely 6-1-1 run that helped Florida capture that spot coveted in the playoffs. Naturally, coach Paul Maurice called on Lyon to start the Panthers’ series against Boston.
The journeyman went 1-1 in Game 3, when he allowed 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 still stuck with the veteran.
Bobrovsky went on to win three straight to end the series with Boston on a high. He improved further in the second round, limiting Toronto’s vaunted offense to just two goals per game. Bobrovsky has become a true virtuoso in the conference finals, recalling his seasons in Columbus as a two-time Vezina Trophy winner while stalling Carolina’s shooters to the point in open frustration after a 1-0 shutout in the game. 3. (Jesperi Kotkaniemi smashing his stick against a dressing room wall, anyone?)
Bobrovsky now carries his impressive 11-2 playoff record, .935 save percentage and 2.21 goals-against average in his first Cup Final appearance. There’s no doubt Bobrovsky’s 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 had a record regular season with 16 goals and 73 points.
Where the defenseman caught everyone’s attention was by recording 57:56 in Florida’s four-overtime Game 1 win over Carolina. It’s no small feat, and it speaks to the importance of Montour’s performance throughout the season – and his overall development.
Montour was previously a solid contributor from depth whose best point total (37) came last year. That he would have a gigantic season in 2022-23 was far from predestined.
Montour maintained his success throughout the Panthers playoffs, stabilizing the fullback with a nightly dose of big minutes (averaging nearly 28 per game) and adding enough offensive contributions (six goals and nine points) to make the back of Florida a real threat. .
Speaking of Panthers defensemen, their willingness to block shots in the series against Carolina made a definite difference. In the first three games alone, Florida’s defense was credited with more than 30 blocked shots, and several came in the final minutes of the 1-0 Game 3 win that pinned the Hurricanes.
Pulling their weight for the Panthers
Aleksander Barkov has spent his entire 10-year career in Florida. Aaron Ekblad has been with the Panthers for his nine NHL seasons.
They’ve had success in the regular season (including as the President’s Trophy winners last season), but that hasn’t translated into a lengthy playoff run.
Barkov and Ekblad provided Florida with some veteran know-how and maybe even a bit of hindsight. They went through the wringer with this franchise. They answered questions and wondered about the future. It’s their time to enjoy the spoils.
These Panthers aren’t one-dimensional or overly reliant on one aspect of their game. Florida is rolling deep.
Ekblad has been a linchpin on the blue line, bringing consistency and the same type of stabilization that Montour provides there. Barkov has scored four goals and had 14 points in his first 15 playoff games. Then there are the guys who don’t make as many headlines.
Carter Verhaeghe is coming off an unprecedented 42-goal regular season and continued to score in a timely manner in the playoffs, with three wins. Sam Reinhart struck in two game winners. Sam Bennett has continued to assume his role as the ultimate preparer.
And the list continues.
Florida beat three teams that overemphasized their so-called “best” players. The Panthers do not need such designations. Florida functions more like an orchestra, where each instrument finds its moment to shine.
The Panthers make great music that way.