SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers were feeling it as Thursday night turned into Friday morning after winning the first game in a Stanley Cup Final in their franchise’s history.
Sure, it was not always pretty — and at times it was not all that exciting.
But once again, the Panthers saved their best for last and, whoa, they were enjoying it.
Florida’s 3-2 overtime win over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 3 of the 2023 NHL Stanley Cup Final came in the team’s first title series game in their ‘new’ building, one built based off the team’s magical run to the Final in 1996.
Thursday marked 27 years to the day that the Stanley Cup Final first came to Florida when the Panthers played host to the Avalanche at Miami Arena.
Those ‘96 Cats were a fun bunch and will always hold a special place in the heart of sport fans in South Florida.
But coach Doug MacLean & Co. certainly would have loved to have the likes of Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe on their side back in the day.
If Houston is Clutch City, make these two honorary citizens.
Florida is now 7-0 in overtime games this postseason with Tkachuk or Verhaeghe scoring five of those winning goals.
Verhaeghe is now the only player in NHL history to score multiple overtime goals in consecutive postseasons and one of three players to have two in multiple playoff years at any point in his career, joining Joe Sakic and Esa Tikkanen.
Tkachuk has now scored more goals in one postseason than any other player in franchise history — with seven of his 11 coming in the third period or OT.
Get that man a Slurpee.
“I’m always in the right place at the right time,’’ Tkachuk said after tying the score at 2 with 2:23 remaining before Verhaeghe won it in overtime.
“Open net. It was a very easy goal.’’
Right after Tkachuk scored the game-tying goal with Sergei Bobrovsky on the bench for an extra attacker, rubber rats hit the ice just like in the good old days.
But these are the good old days.
This Florida team is trying to do something a little more special than their predecessors who worked out of a makeshift locker room at Miami Arena and made hockey cool here in the tropics despite playing that neutral zone trap.
The Panthers have a long way to go in trying to fulfill South Florida’s dream of seeing the Stanley Cup being handed over to their team and that big silver chalice having an extended vacation in the land of sun and fun.
But they are in the fight right now.
By winning Thursday, the Panthers made this Stanley Cup Final a real series with Game 4 on Saturday night in a gussied up FLA Live Arena.
“It’s amazing,’’ captain Sasha Barkov said. “I’m not going to lie, I’ve been here for a long time and this is the best time in my life right now to play in front of that crowd and be battling for something you’ve been dreaming of since literally when I was born. It’s huge.”
Long after the Panthers were done speaking to the media and were heading home, a band playing in one of the arena bars was playing its version of Queen’s We Are the Champions, the tune wafting through the empty arena.
A little premature, no doubt.
But hockey is cool in South Florida once more and the bandwagon continues to roll through the humid sun-filled skies.
Edwin Pope, the legendary sports columnist of the Miami Herald, was asked by a certain hockey writer about what it was like covering the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
He said while he knew that was a great team, he did not appreciate what they were doing while they were doing it.
Pope told me he certainly did not think it would be the defining moment of that fledging young franchise as it was happening.
Enjoy this, South Florida.
Moments like this do not come around very often.
As the great Chicago-based philosopher Ferris Bueller once said: Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
This is too much fun to miss.
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
THE 2023 STANLEY CUP FINAL
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
GAME 4 (Vegas leads 2-1)
- When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV: TNT
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM, WPOW 96.5 FM2, WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Series Schedule — Game 1: @Vegas 5, Florida 2; Game 2: @Vegas 7, Florida 2; Game 3: @Florida 3, Vegas 2 (OT); Game 4: Saturday at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 5: Tuesday at Vegas, 8 (TNT); Game 6*: Friday June 16 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 7*: Monday June 19 at Vegas, 8 (TNT). * – If Necessary
- 2022-23 Regular Season Series (Even 1-1): @Vegas 4, Florida 2 (Jan. 12); @Florida 2, Vegas 1 (March 7)
- All-time Regular Season Series: Golden Knights lead 6-3-1
- Postseason History: First meeting
- How They Got Here — Vegas: d. Winnipeg in 5, Edmonton in 6, Dallas in 6; Florida: d. Boston in 7, Toronto in 5, Carolina in 4.