In the aftermath of one of the biggest wins in Florida Panthers history, coach Paul Maurice spoke about what makes his team special.
“They don’t quit, they keep fighting and now they have a common bond,” he told Katie Engelson of Bally Sports.
“There are so many good jokes in that room but I have no idea what they’re talking about. They can’t stop laughing. That’s when it is wonderful, when you get a group of men who come together like that and pull for each other, fight for each other and then do special things.”
The Panthers are certainly having the times of their lives, rolling through the playoffs like a team possessed.
On Friday night, the Panthers completed yet another series upset, knocking off the Toronto Maple Leafs with a 3-2 win in overtime to close out the Eastern Conference semifinals in Game 5.
In the postgame press conference, Matthew Tkachuk showed some of the exuberance Maurice spoke about, calling overtime-hero Nick Cousins by his little-known nickname of ‘Chum.’
Cousins let out a large laugh.
The Panthers are having themselves a ball right now.
“So, you walk into the room after that and it is pure joy in there,” Maurice said. “By no means was any of this easy. That’s a good team we beat. It is fun to be associated with them. They work their butts off. They come to the rink and they work. But we laugh. It’s good.”
The Panthers make no bones about knowing people did not expect them to be in this spot — Tkachuk often making references to predictions made by the so-called experts in the media.
Florida will now play in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since that magical run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996 where they will take on the Carolina Hurricanes.
“No one in the world thought we would be in this position right now,” said Tkachuk, who on Friday was named a finalist for the Hart Trophy.
“But we don’t care what anyone’s opinion is of us. We know it’ll probably be similar going into this round against a team like Carolina that had a tremendous season and a lot of success the past couple of years. But I don’t want to talk about Carolina. We just want to enjoy this night. … We deserve to enjoy it. This was a grind of a series even though it only went 5 games.”
Tkachuk then threw a dig into the Toronto fans who were chanting ‘We Want Florida!’ after the Maple Leafs advanced out of the first round and Florida still had a Game 7 against Boston still to play.
“I know a lot of people weren’t expecting a lot from us,’’ Tkachuk said, “including a bunch of Leaf fans before the series. We weren’t hearing a lot of those chants after that.”
Florida was 9 points out of the playoffs in January and needed a seven-game point streak (and some help from the Pittsburgh Penguins) just to make the playoffs.
Once they got there, they found themselves down 3-1 to the mighty Boston Bruins after losing 6-2 on home ice.
The Panthers were done, right?
They have lost one game since then rattling off three straight wins against the Bruins and four of five against Toronto.
Florida has won six straight on the road in this postseason with four of those wins coming in overtime.
Carter Verhaeghe and Tkachuk were the heroes of the first three OT games.
On Friday night, it was Cousins’ turn to leap into the spotlight.
“Top of the list, for sure,” said Cousins, who said he had 108 text messages to get to in the moments following the biggest goal of his career. “It is one of those moments when you’ll grow up and tell your kids about it. Big goal, big moment for our team. Very special.”
On Wednesday night, the Panthers had the chance to sweep the Leafs back home but it was apparent Toronto was the more desperate team.
Florida struggled to do anything offensively as Toronto blocked 22 shots and ended up winning 2-1.
The series shifted to Toronto on Friday night and the Panthers looked like a squad ready to meet this challenge right on.
Florida took a 2-0 lead in the first on goals from Aaron Ekblad and Carter Verhaeghe with Sergei Bobrovsky ending his night with 50 saves.
The Panthers tried slowing Toronto down in the third up 2-1 but William Nylander scored late and Florida could not get anything past rookie goalie Joseph Woll.
In overtime, however, Radko Gudas picked up a puck deep in the Florida zone, got it out and ran blocker for Cousins as he cruised up the ice.
Gudas sent a snowshower on Woll as he crashed the net with Cousins whipping a shot past him.
And that was that.
On a night when the Miami Heat advanced to its Eastern Conference finals, the Panthers matched not an hour later.
The party continues on in South Florida as two No. 8 seeds keep on going.
“It is an unreal feeling right now,” captain Sasha Barkov said. “To go to the conference finals, it is a big deal for us. That’s all I can think right now. …
“Here we are. We’re having fun, we’re excited to play hockey at this time of the year. Everyone loves each other and loves being together, being in this room playing together.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
PANTHERS (WC2) AT CAROLINA HURRICANES (MET1)
- When: TBA
- Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh
- TV/Radio: TBA
- Series Schedule: TBA
- Season Series: (Carolina won 2-1): Florida 3, Carolina 2 (Nov.9); Carolina 4, Florida 0 (Dec. 30); Carolina 6, Florida 4 (April 13)
- All-Time Regular Season Series: Carolina/Hartford leads 71-46-10, 11 ties
- Postseason History: First Meeting
- How They Got Here — Carolina: d. New York Islanders in 6; d. New Jersey Devils in 5. Florida: d. Boston Bruins in 7; d. Toronto Maple Leafs in 5.