Congrats, Panthers

Congrats, Panthers

Conner Keough, Staff Writer

NHL’s Cinderella Story: The Cardiac Cats

Congratulations to the 2023 Florida Panthers on winning the Eastern Conference Finals by sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes in 4 games on May 24th.  This has indeed been a fantastic run reminiscent of the 2014 LA Kings, who went on to win the Stanley Cup that season.

In 2021-2022, the Panthers took home the President’s trophy by having the most points in the regular season.  With a record of 58-18-6 and 122 points, last year’s team was known for scoring an average of over 4 goals a game and being able to come back from any deficit.  Unfortunately for them after eliminating the Washington Capitals in the first round, they fell to their in-state rivals, the Tampa Bay Lighting, in the second round.  

Seeing the Panthers make it to the second round was exciting, a feat that the organization has yet to accomplish since 1996.  After their historic season, many wanted to see this success be able to be sustained, but after a few off-season moves many wondered if this team would be as good as last year’s.

In the off-season, the Panthers moved on from interim coach Andrew Burnett.  He took over for Joe Quinville partway through last season after the Panthers fired him for his role in the 2010 Blackhawks scandal.  Burnett led the team to a president’s trophy but got tactically spanked by Jon Cooper’s Lightning in round 2.  Enter Paul Maurice, who had a few mediocre seasons in Winnipeg, and many questioned this coaching choice.

The other big move that happened last off-season was acquiring Matthew Tkachuk.  After his 115-point season in Calgary, he wanted out.  Going to Calgary was Florida’s very own 115-point scorer in Jonathan Huberdeau and dependable defenseman Mackenzie Weager.  This move was a confusing one in which Calgary and Florida exchanged top-line left-wingers.  But Florida also lost their second-best defenseman, a position that was already weak on their roster.  Many had the feeling that Florida tried to overcorrect what happened last season.

And that happened.  At the all-star break, Florida sat outside a playoff spot.  They played better as the season went on, and did qualify for the playoffs as the second wildcard in the eastern conference with a record of 42-32-8.  Not only did they finish with 16 fewer wins than the year prior, but everything looked off for the team this year.  Barkov was not the same, Spencer Knight didn’t develop, and they didn’t have the same comeback ability.  The only bright spot was Matthew Tkachuk, who was the team’s spark plug, scoring 109 points.  

Being the second wildcard means they had to face the best regular season team in NHL history, the 2023 Boston Bruins.  Many, myself included didn’t give Florida a fair chance because of their opponent.  And they proved me right, (at least I thought). After game 4, Boston lead the series 3-1 and all hope seemed lost.

But the “comeback cats” came back, winning game 5 by the score of 4-3 and game 6 by a score of 7-5.  Everyone’s eyes were on game 7 of this series.  Would the mighty Bruins fall to this Cinderella story of a team?  In overtime of game 7, Matthew Tkachuk would win a puck battle against the Bruins defenders and would find an open Carter Verhaeghe in the slot.  The rest is history.  


Panthers eliminate Bruins in game 7


Next up was the formidable Auston Matthews and his Maple Leafs.  This was an interesting matchup because last season, Florida made it out of the first round for the first time since 1996.  This season, Toronto made it out of the first round for the first time since 2004.  Both are incredibly strong teams who had not experienced much playoff success as of late.  

Once again, people slept on the Panthers, who badly outplayed Matthews and the Leafs.  Matthews, Marner and Tavares were all quiet offensively in a 4-1 series win over the 5th place Maple Leafs.  The Cats were clicking and cutting through the Toronto defense.  They were forcing mistakes from the Toronto defense, which led to scoring chances.  Despite William Nylander’s best efforts, Barkov and the Panthers took the series in 5 games.

Moving on to the conference final, they faced the Carolina Hurricanes, the team that finished second in the regular season.  After a game 1 that went to 4 overtimes, it was ended by a Matthew Tkachuk goal.  Tkachuk and Bobrovsky went beast mode in this series to carry the Panthers in some games where they got severely outplayed.  Bobrovsky posted a .931 save percentage this series, and Tkachuk scored 3 game winning goals.  Now that the Panthers have this momentum, I think they could pull it into the next round.

The Panthers (12-4) meet the Golden Knights (12-5) in the 2023 Stanley Cup Final.  Vegas finished 4th place in the regular season, while Florida finished 17th.  In Florida’s run to the finals, they’ve knocked off #1 Boston, #2 Carolina, #5 Toronto.  This is the first team in NHL history to play four top 5 regular season teams in the playoffs.  Not only are the Panthers hot right now, but I think they still have the entire hockey world in the palm of their hands, even being down in the series 3-1. Screw it.  I don’t care about analytics or stats right now.  The cup is coming back to Florida.  Cats in 7!