Panthers relishing 1st trip to NHL's conference finals in 27 years

NHL hasn't said when Florida-Carolina series will start
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing William Nylander (88) scores a goal against Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) during the second period of Game 4 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup second-round playoff series Wednesday, May 10, 2023, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Posted at 3:50 PM, May 13, 2023

SUNRISE, Fla. — There was a wide range of emotions that the Florida Panthers all enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of securing their first conference finals trip in 27 years.

Extreme joy and elation at first. Then a quieter, more contemplative celebration. And then, exhaustion.

"They get to enjoy it," Panthers coach Paul Maurice said Saturday, "until the puck drops again."

Dominated in the second round last year. Dominators in the second round this year. Florida's offseason of risk has officially paid off. The Panthers are headed to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1996, after beating Toronto 3-2 in overtime on Friday night to finish off another playoff stunner.

They ousted the Maple Leafs in five games, after ousting a record-setting Boston team in seven games in Round 1. Their reward: The Eastern Conference Final against Carolina, which eliminated New Jersey. The NHL hasn't said when the Panthers-Hurricanes series will start.

"Nobody in the world thought we were going to be in this position right now," Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk said. "But we don't care what anybody's opinion is on us. We know that it's probably going to be very similar going into this round against a team like Carolina that had a tremendous season and has had tons of success the last bunch of years."

This position, though, was part of the destination that the Panthers had in mind last summer.

Florida had the best record in the NHL last season and got swept out of the second round by Tampa Bay. The Panthers didn't totally blow up the roster, but big changes were made. Leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar were traded to Calgary for Tkachuk, and Maurice was brought in even though interim coach Andrew Brunette wanted to keep the job.

Florida Panthers right wingers Sam Reinhart and Matthew Tkachuk celebrate after tying goal in third period of Game 7 of NHL first-round playoff series at Boston Bruins, April 30, 2023
Florida Panthers players Sam Reinhart, left, and Matthew Tkachuk celebrate after the tying goal by teammate Brandon Montour during the third period of Game 7 of an NHL first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins, Sunday, April 30, 2023, in Boston.

The changes were for a purpose: general manager Bill Zito and the Panthers' braintrust knew that team, as constructed then, wasn't good enough to win a Stanley Cup. It needed an edge. It needed Tkachuk.

So far, so good. The Hart Trophy finalist hasn't done it alone — the Panthers seem to have a new hero every night, and Sergei Bobrovsky has been lights-out in net — but Tkachuk has swagger and seems to have heightened the swagger of those around him.

"I've got two kind of drivers of this," Maurice said. "One is Bill Zito, who did more than just change the coach with that mentality — 'we've got to play a different game than we played.' The other is the kind of willingness that the players said yes. It got a little tough there ... but the players were good about it."

The Panthers took a big swing at the trade deadline last season, loading up for the playoffs by acquiring Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot. Giroux was stellar in the playoffs for Florida, Chiarot was an immediate contributor, but both moved on over the summer. They were certainly not the reasons why Florida didn't make a deep playoff run in 2022.

This season, the Panthers held firm at the deadline — even with a team in danger of missing the playoffs at that point. And here they are, four wins from the Stanley Cup Final, eight wins from hockey's biggest prize.

"These guys, they truly care about each other," Maurice said.

Fans in Toronto chanted "We Want Florida" before this series started. Tkachuk noticed — and noticed that he wasn't hearing those chants Friday night when the series was over.

"A lot of people weren't expecting a lot from us, including a bunch of Leaf fans before this series," Tkachuk said. "We weren't hearing much of those chants afterward and that felt nice."