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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Florida Panthers Moving Up, Moving On After Beating Lightning



Panthers lightning
The Florida Panthers converge on goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to celebrate their first-round Stanley Cup series win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night in Sunrise. // Photo courtesy @FlaPanthers

SUNRISE — After losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in two previous trips to the Stanley Cup playoffs, you know the Florida Panthers enjoyed Monday night.

Yes, this victory just hit different.

The Panthers were not overly giddy following their 6-1 win over Tampa Bay at Amerant Bank Arena — after all, this is just the first round of the playoffs.

But there certainly seemed to be a weight lifted off after taking down their nemesis.

The Lightning has ruled hockey in this state for some time now.

On Monday, after winning this first-round series in 5 games, it felt like a changing of the guard.

The Florida Panthers run this state now.

“It’s just such an amazing feeling,’’ said Matthew Tkachuk, who was traded to the Panthers not long after Florida was swept out of the second-round by the Lightning in 2022 casting a pall on the Presidents’ Trophy season.

“Coming here and throughout the last however many years, they’ve been the team — not only in the East, but in the league — who’ve had the most success in the playoffs.

“They’ve taken two wins over Florida the past two times they’ve played each other in the playoffs. To be a part of this team, to hear the crowd … this is a big series for us. We always knew that, for us, to ultimately win it all, it’s probably going to have to go through Tampa at some point. It’s just an amazing feeling closing it out here and closing it out at home.”

Tkachuk mentioned that Tampa Bay is Florida’s biggest rival, but a new test will soon come.

The Boston Bruins, whom Tkachuk said was “our next-biggest rival,’’ is likely on deck. 

Florida will have home ice in the Eastern Conference semifinals but will not officially know its opponent until the end of the Boston-Toronto series.

The Bruins hold a commanding 3-1 lead on the imploding Leafs with Game 5 tonight in Boston.

Game 1 of the next series could start as soon as Saturday night in Sunrise although nothing will be decided until the Bruins move on.

Regardless, the Panthers will have a couple of days to rest, recover and get ready for what comes next.

“Keeping an even-keel is always difficult because it feels so good,’’ Aaron Ekblad said. “At the end of the day, you relish this for a day because it is well deserved.”

Florida took a 2-0 lead in the second period after Tampa Bay had the first of two controversial goals taken off the board late in the first.

Carter Verhaeghe, Florida’s postseason shaman, made it 1-0 just 45 seconds into the second period by scoring on a 4-on-4 hustle goal.

After driving in on Andrei Vasilevskiy, Verhaeghe’s slap shot was blocked by the Tampa Bay goalie. Only the rebound came into the slot and no one was there to retrieve it.

Well, Verhaeghe was. He jumped on his own rebound and sent it home for the initial lead.

At 12:38 of the second, Barkov got his first of the night by grabbing a rebound off a hard Ekblad shot and banging it through.

Victor Hedman made it 2-1 at 13:37 of the period before a second Tampa Bay goal was taken off the board.

It remained 2-1 deep into the third before Barkov knocked in a bouncing puck which started on a shot from Verhaeghe that hit the stick of Tkachuk in front.

The puck ended up on Barkov’s stick — for just a moment. He got it through and the Panthers were rolling.

Florida added a breakaway goal from Evan Rodrigues at 14:16 of the third from the left circle before Verhaeghe and Niko Mikkola scored empty-net goals to get the party rolling in Sunrise.

“They had our number the past couple of years,’’ said Verhaeghe, the Stanley Cup champ with the Lightning in 2020.

“Finally, we got one on them. It feels good.”

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