SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers were underdogs long before they grabbed a playoff spot by the skin of their teeth and pulled off one upset after another to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final berth since 1996.
Sure, they won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and recorded a historic amount of goals in the process.
Only things go further than that.
In order to get to that point, general manager Bill Zito assembled a rag-tag group of castaways and put them in a position to — in some cases — become bonafide stars.
Carter Verhaeghe went from a guy who fought for playing time with the Tampa Bay Lightning and spent two different spells in the ECHL to a 40-goal scorer.
Anthony Duclair found a home on the top line next to Verhaeghe and captain Sasha Barkov after stints with five other teams.
Gus Forsling was claimed off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes — the team Florida swept to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup Final — and became a standout top-pairing defenseman.
Josh Mahura, also claimed off waivers, has become a solid mainstay on the back end as well.
Others like Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett and Brandon Montour finally reached their full potential in Sunrise after failing to do so with the teams who drafted them.
As the name of the town they reside in suggests, the Panthers have provided a new beginning to a variety of players who possessed skill but lacked opportunity.
And the adversity each of them went through to get
“The life experience of those players when they come in and they start being guys who are in and out of the lineup — not just at 18, because almost all players are like that — but a lot of guys got to the point where they were not sure that their career is going to continue or whether they are going to make it to the NHL,” coach Paul Maurice said.
“You start working on the details hard and you have to work every day. You’re not casual about coming to the rink also you’ve got a real fire to get better.”
The attention to detail each of these players spent countless years on meant a seamless buy-in when Maurice swapped out Florida’s high-paced offense for a more detailed chip-and-grind style of game.
And even when they saw success in that new system, each player still focused long and hard on how to improve even more.
Verhaeghe, as Maurice often uses as a prime example of this, spends countless hours watching video off games to improve his game defensively.
Duclair, coming off a 30-goal season, spent months watching every minute detail of Maurice’s system while he was injured and came back a much more complete player.
Forsling has invested heavily on the defensive end of the ice and has evolved into a stalwart for the Panthers.
“My whole career, I have just been trying to get better and right now it’s no different,” Verhaeghe said.
“It doesn’t matter what happens on the ice, whether I score goals or don’t score goals. There’s always little things and once you stop trying to look for ways to improve, I think it catches up with you. You don’t get better and you start doing downhill.”
That will to improve has also bled into the underdog mentality Florida has kept throughout their improbable postseason run.
“We all have different stories and different paths that led us here and I think, for us, we could use some inner motivation to battle every night,” Duclair said.
“We’ve all come together here over these last few months, played unbelievable and played real hard for each other. We have the same end goal and that is to win every night and keep that same mentality every night.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
THE 2023 STANLEY CUP FINAL
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
OR DALLAS STARS
- When: TBA
- Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas OR AmericanAirlines Center, Dallas
- TV: TNT
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM, WPOW 95.6 FM2, WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Series Schedule — TBA
- 2022-23 Regular Season Series Vs. Vegas (Even 1-1): @Vegas 4, Florida 2 (Jan. 12); @Florida 2, Vegas 1 (March 7)
- All-time Regular Season Series: vs. Vegas Golden Knights lead 6-3-1
- 2022-23 Regular Season Series vs. Dallas (Stars Won 2-0):Dallas 6, @Florida 4 (Nov. 17); @Dallas 5, Florida 1 (Jan. 8)
- All-time Regular Season Series: vs. Dallas Florida leads 24-21-2, 3 ties
- Postseason History: First meeting vs. both Vegas or Dallas