The Florida Panthers have redefined their legacy, advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996. After a sweeping victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final, the Panthers, often referred to as the underdogs, have now become the “beasts of the East”.
The deciding Game 4, held on Thursday, May 24, at the Panthers’ home rink in Sunrise, Florida, was a thrilling affair that saw Matthew Tkachuk, the Panthers’ left-wing, score the game-winning goal with just 4.9 seconds remaining. This victory sealed their spot in the Stanley Cup Final, making it the first series sweep in franchise history.
The game was a demonstration of the Panthers’ resilience and determination, as expressed by their goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky. “We showed the resilience … and we’re lucky to have Chucky on our side. He knows how to score big goals,” Bobrovsky said after the game. His exceptional performance, with a .966 save percentage after stopping 174 of the 180 shots he faced during the series, was instrumental in the Panthers’ success.
The Panthers’ victory in this series is a significant milestone in their history. They were the No. 8 seed, the last team in, the longest of long shots. Their journey to this point has been far from easy, with a 26-year-long playoff series-winning drought ending just last season. Now, they stand four wins away from claiming the Stanley Cup, something Matthew Tkachuk had expressed as a goal when he joined the Panthers last summer.
After the victory, Aleksander Barkov, the Panthers’ captain, held up the Prince of Wales trophy, awarded to the Eastern Conference champions. “It’s hard to explain right now. Everything just happened so quick,” Barkov said. “It means a lot. It definitely does. … It hasn’t been easy and nobody said it’s going to be easy,” he added, signifying the importance of this achievement for the team.
Sasha Barkov reflects on the indescribable feeling of winning the ECF: "It's very hard to describe."
— Bally Sports Florida: Panthers (@BallyPanthers) May 25, 2023
Looking ahead, the Panthers will face either the Vegas Golden Knights or the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final. As of now, Vegas currently leads the Western Conference title series 3-0. Florida was 1-1-0 head-to-head against Vegas this season, losing 4-2 on the road Jan. 12 and winning 2-1 at home March 7.
The last time the Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup Final was in 1996, when they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche. This time, however, they aim to rewrite their story, with a newfound confidence and zeal. “Eastern Conference champions,” said Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad after the game. “It’s really cool. No doubt about it. But you know, at the end of the day, we have our eyes on something different.
Despite the thrill and celebrations, the Panthers are well aware that they have a challenging path ahead. The upcoming battle for the Stanley Cup will be a testament to their growth, resilience, and determination. As they prepare for the next phase of this journey, the Panthers, with their history-making performance, have already made an indelible mark on the NHL.