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Five things to know about the Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers

Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad

AP Photo

Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) and Las Vegas center Chandler Stephenson (20) battle for the puck during a January game between the opponents in this year’s Stanley Cup Final.

The Panthers are in for one of the most unlikely runs in NHL history considering where they sat at the end of the regular season.

It seemed that Florida, a year after winning the President’s Trophy for the most points in the regular season, would narrowly miss out on the playoffs. The Panthers didn’t claim their spot until the final day and needed a few upsets elsewhere to clear the way.

Their odds stayed high in the first round against Boston, which had posted the best regular season record in league history, and the Bruins took a 3–1 series lead. And then… the Panthers became nearly unbeatable, going 11-1 since then.

After dispatching Boston with three straight wins, Florida eliminated Toronto in five games and then swept Carolina. That run through a trio of Eastern Conference powers sent the Panthers to their second Stanley Cup Final, and first since 1996.

Here are five things to know about the Golden Knights’ next opponent.

Hello Bob

Once upon a time, many considered Sergei Bobrovsky the best goalkeeper in hockey. Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner with the Columbus Blue Jackets, capitalized on the acclaim by signing a seven-year, $70 million contract with Florida in the summer of 2019.

But that quickly began to look like one of the worst contracts in the NHL. The Russian known as “Bob” struggled through his first four seasons with the Panthers before unexpectedly breaking out in this postseason.

Bobrovsky, 34, now appears to be in top form with an 11-2 record in the playoffs, including a 2.21 goals allowed per game average and a .935 save percentage.

Matthew Tkachuk, superstar

Tkachuk led the Eastern Conference playoffs with nine goals and 21 points, but his value hasn’t just been scoring. Is about when has scored.

Tkachuk has been a part of five game-winning goals this postseason, scoring four of them, including the game-winner with five seconds remaining to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Final in the sweep of Carolina.

Tkachuk arrived in Florida following a highly successful summer trade with the Calgary Flames, in which the Panthers sent Jonathan Huberdeau, their leading scorer in 2021-2022, and defenseman Mackenzie Weegar. Leaving Huberdeau was a risk, but it was worth it. Tkachuk is one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player in the NHL.

Great game Carter Verhaeghe

Verhaeghe has the ability to score when it matters most. He emerged in last year’s playoffs, scoring six goals and 12 points in 10 games, then proved it was no fluke by scoring a career-high 42 goals in the regular season.

The 27-year-old forward has 15 points in 16 games this postseason, with a plus/minus of +11 during 5-on-5 play.

behind the bench

Paul Maurice resigned as coach of the Winnipeg Jets after eight seasons in 2021, citing what amounted to burnout. But he had the nerve to return to the bench less than a year later, taking over a Florida team that was looking for the same thing: redemption.

The Panthers had struggled for years, going 26 years between playoff series wins (1996-2022), while Maurice was never able to fully get over the hump in Winnipeg. His best team, the Jets, lost to the Golden Knights in five games in the 2018 Western Conference finals.

Maurice has been to the playoffs five of the past six years, but this will be his first Cup Final appearance since leading the Hurricanes there in 2002, losing to the Detroit Red Wings in five games.

rats

If you go to see the “Cats” you will also come across some rats. Panthers fans have a long tradition of throwing plastic rats onto the ice after victories. It all started in October 1995, when Panthers players noticed a rat in their locker room.

Legend has it that Florida captain Scott Mellanby hit the rat with his cane before scoring twice that night. Now, after each victory, the toy rats are thrown on the ice.

Think of it as the Panthers’ version of the Golden Knights’ plastic flamingo celebration.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.



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