Connect with us

2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Florida Panthers Finally Slay The Tampa Bay Dragon



Florida panthers
Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky shake hands following Florida’s 6-1 win over the Lightning in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series on Monday night in Sunrise. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

SUNRISE — For the first time in franchise history, the Florida Panthers went into the playoffs and slayed their personal dragon in the cross-state rival Tampa Bay Lightning.

Monday’s 6-1 win over Tampa Bay marked the first time Florida had beaten the three-time Stanley Cup champions when it mattered most.

Florida lost its first two postseason matchups to Tampa Bay, including a second-round sweep following a Presidents’ Trophy winning season in 2022.

That loss, and the embarrassing way in which it happened, caused a seismic shift in the team’s culture.

Out went Jonathan Huberdeau and Andrew Brunette, in came Matthew Tkachuk and Paul Maurice, and, two years later, the Panthers found themselves on the joyous side of the handshake line.

“There obviously has been a lot of change since then,” Aaron Ekblad said. “A lot of growing and a lot of pain along the way. But change is good in that scenario and where we are is incredible.”

Tkachuk made it known that he wanted to be part of the change from Day 1.

After coming up in countless moments for the Calgary Flames in games against bitter rival Edmonton, Tkachuk stepped up to the podium and made it known who he was gunning at next.

“I hate Edmonton,” Tkachuk said in his introductory press conference in 2022. “But I hate Tampa more now.”

Two years later, Tkachuk brought it against the Lightning.

“I think that was just being part of a rivalry now and kind of getting thrown into the fire and being forced to hate them,” Tkachuk said. “But you know, I have tons of respect for what they’ve done and all of the players who have won and had success.

“Just to be in a playoff series against your biggest rival is so cool and so much fun to begin with and then to come out on top and be a part of the team that was able to do that for the first time, it makes it that much more special.”

Even after a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2023, the shadow of the Tampa Bay Lightning still loomed large.

The Panthers couldn’t get the job done in the Cup Final like the Lightning did twice in three-straight appearances the years prior.

And, the biggest sticking point to last year’s run was, Florida did not have to go through Tampa Bay to do it.

The Panthers can now say their redemption tour started with Tampa Bay.

“I loved listening to that interview when Tkachuk first got here talking about how we have to get through Tampa at some point,” Ekblad said. “The fact that we did is obviously a huge accomplishment.”

This one meant a lot more to both the players and the fans.

You could feel it from the very top of the building.

Panthers fans were serenading the Lightning with “Na na na na na! Hey! Hey! Hey! Goodbye!” for the final five minutes of the game.

There were a few more obscenities than usual being yelled in the Florida locker room after the game.

Heck, even soft-spoken captain Sasha Barkov let out a very rare celebration following his insurance goal with 8:54 to go, going down on one knee and letting out an emphatic fist pump.

“I don’t know what to say there,” Barkov said. “It doesn’t happen too often but it definitely felt great. That’s all I can say about that moment.”

Barkov, more than anyone, remembers how it felt in the locker room after the sweep in 2022.

He also remembers how it felt watching his best friend he spent a decade building the Panthers up with get shipped off to Calgary a few months later.

But a moment like that made all of it worth it for him.

“It was great to get over the hump and we all remember what happened [in 2021 and 2022],” Barkov said. “At some point, we were going to have to see them again and you got to get over the hump. And we did it this year and it obviously feels great right now.”

It mean the same for Anton Lundell, Gus Forsling, and Sam Reinhart, who experienced the first taste of playoff heartbreak in their careers with the series loss.

And for Carter Verhaeghe, who watched the team he won the Cup with in 2020 make the Cup Final again without him twice, beating his Panthers en route both times.

And especially for Sergei Bobrovsky, who finally got one over on Andrei Vasilevskiy after a shaky 2021 showing which saw him lose the net and a generational series in 2022 from Vasilevskiy where Bobrovsky was outperformed despite his best efforts.

They were all smiling a bit more than usual after Monday’s win.

“I am really happy for the players that went through the pain of not having success,” coach Paul Maurice said. “Two guys who were critical in the game tonight, Barkov and Bobrovsky, when you’re a leader and when you’re the goaltender, when you’re the captain, when you have a series that doesn’t go your way, those are the guys that have to answer for it.

“Both of those guys were really good tonight. All of those guys were really good all series, so I’m happy for the guys who dealt with some pain. I rolled into town when the team was pretty good, so I didn’t have to deal with any of that, so those guys will appreciate today.”

For the most in-depth coverage of the Florida Panthers:


Get FHN+ today!