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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Florida Panthers Rally to Beat Leafs, Win Division, Face Lightning

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The Florida Panthers celebrate their 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs and the 2024 NHL Atlantic Division title on Tuesday night in Sunrise. // Photo courtesy @FlaPanthers

SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers did not look like they were ready for the playoffs through the first 20 minutes of Tuesday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Toronto carried a two-goal lead into the break after hounding Florida in the first period, leading 14-6 in shots and 12-5 in scoring chances.

It was 2-0 and did not look close.

But the Panthers blew the doors open in the second, rolled to a 5-2 win and claimed the Atlantic Division title after the Boston Bruins fell 3-1 to the Senators.

“I liked tonight’s game especially because the first period was similar to [our play] over the last month. It was just OK. It was pretty good, but we were down a couple,” coach Paul Maurice said.

“The second period was the first time in a while that we looked the way we’re supposed to look. And you can feel it. It was more than just the way we looked. You can feel it on the bench and the energy level on the bench and that’s a good way to go into the playoffs coming off, not the win, but the style of hockey that you’ll want to play and say ‘OK, it’s there.’”

The catalyst behind the comeback?

None other than Carter Verhaeghe.

In his first game back from an upper-body injury which kept him out since April 1, Verhaeghe got the Panthers on the board 28 seconds into the second period after putting home his own rebound.

“Our whole energy was better in the second,” Sam Bennett said. “We came out flying. We started making plays and skating and [Verhaeghe’s goal] changed everything.”

After peppering the Maple Leafs for the majority of the second period, the Panthers broke it open midway through.

Bennett and Sam Reinhart scored two goals within 10 seconds of each other and the Panthers held a 3-2 lead with 9:18 to go in the second period.

Brandon Montour added another goal with a blast from the point and Florida locked things down from there.

From the start of the second period onward, the Panthers led 36-12 in shots and 27-13 in scoring chances.

Anthony Stolarz did his part, stopping all 12 of those shots he faced, and helped the Panthers lock down the Atlantic Divison crown.

For a longtime backup goaltender, it was a situation he never thought he would see himself in.

And he took full advantage of it.

“It was super special,” Stolarz said. “Probably the most important game I’ve ever played in my NHL career. But you just go out there like business as usual, still trying to be loose around the room before the game but it was just nice the way the guys played. Everyone played super hard, guys are blocking shots “

By the time the third period rolled around, the Panthers knew what would be on the other side if they won.

Word had gone around the Florida locker room during the second intermission of Boston’s loss to Ottawa.

“They were playing 30 minutes before us, so we were able to scoreboard watch a little bit, so we knew going into the third, we just needed a win to clinch it,” Tkachuk said. “I thought we played really well after the first period and it means a lot to us to get home ice because it shows that we had a solid season and I’m glad there’s something to show for it.”

That division title means they will be seeing a very familiar face in the first round.

Tampa Bay is the last Eastern Conference team to have eliminated Florida from the playoffs, doing so in a second-round sweep which humbled the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers.

“It’s great. It’s funny how this sometimes work out like that,” Bennett said. “It’s a great rivalry. I’m sure the fans will love it and we’re definitely really excited for it.”

For the past four seasons one of Florida or Tampa Bay has been in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Lightning made it to the Cup Final from 2020 to 2022, winning the Cup twice, before the Panthers made it to the Final in 2023 before losing to Vegas.

“I’m very excited about this opportunity [to be] back in the playoffs after the way last year went,” Tkachuk said.

“And I just think it’s super fitting for us to be playing Tampa in this first round. What an unbelievable run they’ve been on since Christmas, or All-Star break. They’re playing very well; we’re playing well so I think it’s going to make for a great series. I’m just excited to be in this series and [to] have an opportunity to play in playoffs again.”

STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (WC1) VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS (ATL1)

GAME 1

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