4 Reasons for the Florida Panthers’ Impossible Run to the Stanley Cup Finals
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Many NHL teams have used a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality to fuel the playoffs, even if it doesn’t really make sense. Something about a “haters pray my fall mindset” just gets the juices flowing and builds a sense of camaraderie, even if it’s made up.
But wow boy, nothing about these eighth-seeded Florida Panthers has made them feel like the underdog–or rather, the under kitties–throughout the 2022-23 playoffs. When they punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final Wednesday, sweeping the Hurricanes with yet another Matthew Tkachuk dramatic game-winning goal, they became the only team in the NHL’s expansion era to reach the Finals after spend less. than 30 percent of the time in a playoff spot.
“When we played Boston, the only people who thought we could beat them were myself and my teammates in the locker room,” Tkachuk told TNT after Wednesday’s game at Florida Live Arena. “I’m not going to lie, that series set us up for more confidence. We went into the playoffs with a good record coming in with confidence, but any time you play the No. 1 team in the history of NHL you know. what an underdog you are. We got a lot of confidence from that series, we’ve been underdogs in every series so far, and we’re going to go on to the Stanley Cup Final. God, it feels good to say that , that’s great. We believe in ourselves, and not many people do.”
If you don’t believe in Tkachuk the Florida Panthers at this point, I don’t know what to tell you. Here are the top five reasons they punched an unexpected-but-totally-deserved ticket to this year’s Stanley Cup Final.
Sergei Bobrovsky Became a Cheat Code in the Playoffs
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Many wonder if this will be the year that the narrative of having a hot goalie means everyone in the playoffs will be challenged. And I mean, it’s challenged to some degree.
You watch the Golden Knights decide to roll on Adin Hill and make it work. The Devils reached the second round of their trigger-happy rotation of rookies Akira Schmidt and Vitek Vanecek. The Hurricanes beat New Jersey with the Freddie Andersen and Antti Raanta tag team. On the flip side, you’re looking at three of the league’s best regular-season goaltenders — Linus Ullmark, Ilya Sorokin, Igor Shesterkin — all suffering first-round exits.
And yes, these Panthers have a lot more to offer than hot goaltending. But none of this would have been possible without the Conn Smythe-caliber rise of Sergei Bobrovsky in their net.
The 34-year-old with a polarizing $10 million AAV is the best goaltender in the playoffs and it’s no contest. According to MoneyPuck.com, his 19.5 goals saved above expectations is the third highest for a playoff goalie since modern stats began in 2008. MoneyPuck ranks him in every notable stat, including Wins Above Replacement with 3.25 (Shesterkin is next at 1.46) and GAA is better than expected at 1.40.
Did we mention that he made the most of the save in a 4-game sweep in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Look it up, it’s real.
He is 11-2-0 with a 2.15 GAA and .935 save percentage. He made a timely rescue. He makes untimely saves. Ever since he got his first start midway through the Bruins series, he’s been running it and we have to give some credit to the Panthers coaching staff for making it look so simple.
Matthew Tkachuk Has Reached A Whole New Level of Stardom
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Traditionalists are up in arms and clutching their pearls about their beloved TV ratings ahead of the Eastern Conference Final. Will Carolina-Florida move the needle? Will the cap ceiling rise again? Will Canadians know peace?
Throw it all out the window. There is nothing better for growing the game of hockey than the electric tear Matthew Tkachuk is right now.
His latest game-winner sent the Panthers to the Final with 4.3 seconds left in regulation. latest game-winning goal in regulation to capture a series in Stanley Cup Playoff history.
You know he will too, because of the way he’s running now. Through 16 games, so far, he has nine goals, 12 assists, three overtime winners (including a quadruple-overtime ender), 37 high-danger chances (via the natural stat trick), and 3,000 good vibes (H /T Dimitri Filipovic). He scored two goals in Game 4 on just five total shots. He and his line dominated matchups in all three rounds.
“Who else, right?” Aaron Ekblad said Wednesday after Tkachuk’s buzzer beater. “What he did is unexplainable.”
It’s not just about the clutch goals, it’s Tkachuk’s enthusiasm for the game and his fun goal celebrations. We wonder if hockey is allowed to be fun. Tkachuk is on a one-man mission to revitalize the sport, and as much as his clutch factor has broken the hearts of many franchises this postseason, you have to respect him.
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Expanding on what Tkachuk has done individually, this entire Panthers team has just found a knack for the clutch. And as Tkachuk said, maybe it all started with the confidence gained in the first-round series against the Bruins. It seemed like every time Boston dared to mishandle the puck in the foul zone, a Panther was there to collect said puck and put it in the Bruins net.
Give it to the Bruins, and then the Panthers will take it. Then give it to the Maple Leafs, and the Panthers will take it. When the Panthers swept the Hurricanes in the conference finals, however, they felt more like they were going to lose for once — even though they were the underdogs on paper.
Does the lack of pressure in the face of less adversity have something to do with it? Is it the team’s strong record and playoff form that has been around since the All-Star break?
There’s something about this team that’s hard to put your finger on, whether it’s Sam Bennett trading Tkachuk for their “pest-or-hero” roles on any given night, Bobrovsky’s rise to out of nowhere, Brandon Montour’s tour de force (can you win a Norris in the postseason?), or Anthony Duclair’s big comeback.
Perhaps the best way to describe it is also the simplest: The vibes are incredible.
Bill Zito, Paul Maurice and the Rest of the Panthers Staff Know Better Than Us
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Joel Auerbach/Getty Images
You have to hand it to GM of the year finalist Bill Zito: He may have overpaid Bobrovsky because Bobrovsky has underperformed for several years. Maybe he just made a big offseason move (you know, the one that sent Tkachuk to Florida). He may have hired Paul Maurice of all people to replace fan-favorite interim head coach Andrew Brunette, now an assistant with the Devils.
Make this a lesson.
Sometimes it’s good to overpay on a contract, especially if that contract is a goaltender. Keyword “sometimes,” people. Sometimes trading for the best player available is all you need to do. And sometimes, keyword sometimes, Maurice is the man.
Perhaps the real lesson here is that none of us know how a contract, a trade, or a head coaching hire will actually pan out. Maybe, as we’ve seen so often in recent years, the Presidents Trophy is not Cursesbut it takes a second to do this magic.
Maybe it’s OK to wait and see.