How the Florida Panthers made it to the 2023 Stanley Cup Finals

  • Kristen Shilton, ESPN NHL reporterMay 24, 2023 11:03 pm ET

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      Kristen Shilton is an NHL national reporter for ESPN.

The Florida Panthers are in the Stanley Cup finals.

Just like we all predicted.

(jokingly.)

In reality, Florida’s trajectory this season reads like the plot of a classic Disney film, a tale about brave misfits, fueled by confidence, who slay dragons and beat all odds on their way to unexpected victory. And all the main characters are designed to make that happen.

Anti-hero Matthew Tkachuk was the polarizing, productive face of the Panthers’ playoff run.

Quiet, unassuming Sergei Bobrovsky is enjoying a career renaissance as Florida’s backbone on the web.

Breakout star Brandon Montour has brought momentum to the blue line.

Franchise veterans Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad have stepped in to help Florida reach its potential (finally).

And role-players from Carter Verhaeghe to Sam Bennett to Sam Reinhart have rounded out the Panthers cast with strong contributions.

The Panthers caused a lot of drama. It will be fascinating – and fun – to watch them in the upcoming cup final. Let’s take a look at exactly what Florida did so well to become the NHL’s postseason darling.

(More than) happy to be here

Florida’s greatest superpower could be in for a surprise.

Taking it a step further, the Panthers were bottom of the Atlantic Division for about two-thirds of the regular season. Nevertheless, General Manager Bill Zito stopped at the end of trading and expressed his confidence in the already assembled group. It was a bold – and seemingly questionable – decision.

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A few months later, Zito is a finalist for the GM of the Year award. Apparently, his gamble paid off. Florida went all out to push past Pittsburgh in the 11th hour of the game to secure eighth and last place in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Your reward? A first-round clash with the Boston Bruins, who played the best regular season in league history. Florida was undeterred and won the series 4-3. Next up were the Toronto Maple Leafs, who defeated Florida 4-1. When the Panthers faced Carolina in the Eastern Conference Finals, they seemed completely unstoppable and sent the Hurricanes home with a series win.

The Panthers were not weighed down by outside pressure. Heck, they weren’t the betting favorite in any game until they led 2-0 against Carolina in the Eastern Finals. If Florida found that disrespectful, it never showed. The Panthers are doing too well to care.

“Why play in this situation if you can’t have fun with it?” Tkachuk mused ahead of Game 3 against the Hurricanes. “There is 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 really tune out their critics. Florida did it successfully. The Panthers are not burdened by history. You are unique. This ability to live in and embrace the present should continue to drive Florida.

The Maturation by Matthew Tkachuk

Matthew Tkachuk’s dogged demeanor has set the tone for the Panthers throughout the postseason. Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire

If you missed it when Matthew Tkachuk was in Calgary, the forward has come on tremendously since he was seen by some as a simple nuisance.

It may be a pest, but it is actually multi-faceted.

Tkachuk’s refusal to sign a long-term contract with the Flames last summer eased his move to Florida in July for Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers’ top scorer of the 2021-22 season, and top-four defenseman MacKenzie Weegar. Risky? Possibly. But the move was worth it for the Panthers.

Tkachuk drove Florida’s offense during a tumultuous regular season with 40 goals and 109 points (ranked seventh in the NHL). He played a pivotal role in luring the Panthers into the race for last place in the playoffs, with a breakthrough late in the season while borrowing the us-versus-the-world mentality.

And he didn’t hurt Florida by taking nasty penalties or stirring up the pot; Tkachuk was too busy putting pucks in the net.

He did that all of the postseason, and no goal was bigger than his winner with 4.9 seconds left in Game 4 that defeated Carolina and sent the Panthers to the Cup final. Tkachuk has nine goals and 21 points in 16 games, including overtime winners in Games 1 and 2 against the Hurricanes. And sure, Tkachuk has had to pick up a penalty or two over time, but he’s also been a dominating presence on offense at times, delivering the big plays needed. That’s what Florida needed most from their Hart Trophy nominee.

Bobrovsky is back

He wasn’t Florida’s first pick as a postseason starter. But Sergei Bobrovsky didn’t let that stop him from becoming the team’s finisher.

When the $10 million man at the Panthers net fell ill with an illness in March, substitute Alex Lyon took over the goal area and put on an incredible 6-1-1 run that helped Florida earn the coveted postseason berth to secure. Of course, coach Paul Maurice picked Lyon to start the Panthers’ series against Boston.

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The journeyman went 1-1 into Game 3 as he conceded five goals on 30 shots and was replaced by Bobrovsky late in the third period. Maurice returned to Bobrovsky for Game 4, a loss for the Panthers but still stayed with the veteran.

Bobrovsky then secured three straight wins, ending the streak with Boston on a good note. He continued to improve in the second round, keeping Toronto’s much-vaunted offense down to just two goals a game. Bobrovsky blossomed into a true virtuoso in the conference finals, recalling his season in Columbus as a two-time Vezina Trophy winner while handicapping Carolina’s shooters to open frustration after a 1-0 blank in Game 3. (Jesperi Kotkaniemi broke his bat against a dressing room wall, anyone?)

Now Bobrovsky is carrying his impressive postseason record of 11-2, a save percentage of .935 and an average of 2.21 clean sheets into his maiden cup final. There’s no doubt that Bobrovsky’s performance will be significant for Florida.

Montour, the minute eater

In addition to anchoring the Florida blue line, Brandon Montour made some key offensive contributions. Michael Chisholm/NHLI via Getty Images

It was crucial enough for the Panthers’ chances that Brandon Montour had the best regular season of his career with 16 goals and 73 points.

However, the defenseman caught everyone’s attention when he scored Florida’s four-overtime Game 1 win over Carolina 57-56. That’s no small feat and underscores the importance of Montour’s performance throughout the season – and his overall development.

Montour has previously been a solid contributor to depth, posting his best overall score (37) last year. It was far from predictable that he would experience a mammoth season in 2022/23.

Montour was able to sustain his success during the Panthers’ postseason, stabilizing the back end with a nightly dose of big minutes (nearly 28 per game average) and contributing enough offensive contributions (six goals and nine points) to make Florida’s back end one to make real threat .

As for the Panthers’ defensemen, their willingness to block shots in the series against Carolina was undeniably crucial. In the first three games alone, the Florida defense was credited with more than 30 blocked shots, and several came in the closing minutes of the 1-0 Game 3 win that put the Hurricanes in a stranglehold.

They stand up for the Panthers

Aleksander Barkov has spent his entire 10-year career in Florida. Aaron Ekblad was with the Panthers in all nine of his NHL seasons.

They’ve had regular-season success (including winning the President’s Trophy last season) but it hasn’t translated into long-lasting post-season success.

Until now.

Barkov and Ekblad have provided Florida with veteran knowledge and maybe even a little perspective. They’ve been through a lot with this franchise. They answered the questions and thought about the future. This is her time to enjoy the loot.

These panthers are not one dimensional and do not overly rely on any single aspect of their game. Florida rolls deep.

Ekblad was a pivot on the blue line, providing consistency there and the same type of stabilization that Montour offers. Barkov has four goals and 14 points in his first 15 playoff games. Then there are the people who don’t make as many headlines.

Carter Verhaeghe is coming off an unheralded 42-goal regular season and has had timed goals in the playoffs, winning three games. Sam Reinhart has won two game winners himself. Sam Bennett has consistently proven his role as the ultimate setup man.

And the list goes on.

Florida has beaten three teams that put too much emphasis on their so-called “best” players. The Panthers don’t need such designations. Florida functions more like an orchestra, with each instrument finding its chance to shine.

This is how the Panthers make beautiful music.

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