SUNRISE — For 27 years now, the Florida Panthers have been waiting for a chance at redemption in the Stanley Cup Final.
The wait is now officially over.
On Wednesday night, the Panthers finally made it back to the Stanley Cup Final as Matthew Tkachuk broke a 3-3 tie against the Carolina Hurricanes with a power play goal with 4.9 seconds remaining.
Tkachuk’s third game-winning goal in what ended up being a four-game sweep of the Metropolitan Division champions sent a packed FLA Live Arena into a frenzy even as officials drew out the replay process to see if there was interference on goalie Frederik Andersen.
There was not.
The party in Sunrise was on.
“Chucky knows how to score big goals,’’ said Sergei Bobrovsky, who made 36 saves for his 11th win in his past 12 starts.
“His composure and his hockey IQ — he’s such a smart player. It was a big goal. He’s been great for us all season long and especially in the playoffs. He knows how to score big goals.”
Yeah he does.
Tkachuk and captain Sasha Barkov had no hesitation in grabbing the Prince of Wales Trophy — given to the Eastern Conference champ although some think it is bad luck to touch any trophy in hockey aside from the Stanley Cup upon winning it.
The Panthers were a team nine points out of the playoffs in January who had to go 6-0-1 down the stretch — and get some help from a Pittsburgh team which couldn’t win a meaningful game had they paid for it — so seeing them ignore silly superstitions was not all that surprising.
As Bobrovsky likes to say, these Panthers are living in the moment. They are not looking back, not looking ahead. Now, they’re headed to the Stanley Cup Final.
They are simply digging every moment of where they are at.
And, where they are at right now, is a pretty cool neighborhood to be in.
”The best part of tonight is for all the people who have been here for a very long time,” said coach Paul Maurice, hired just 11 months ago. “Mr. Viola, the investment in the team year after year with no guarantee of reward. It took an awful long time.
”Everyone is coming to the rink tomorrow in a phenomenal mood.”
The Panthers, who are 11-1 since beating the Bruins in Boston in Game 5 with their season on the line, are in the Cup Final for the first time since 1996.
It has been a long time coming.
To see the reaction of Billy Lindsay, who scored the biggest goal in franchise history before Tkachuk & Co. started going scorched earth on these playoffs, one can feel the emotion of it all.
"I'm emotional… it's been a long time." @LindsayBHockey was on the 1996 @FlaPanthers team that made the #StanleyCup Finals and he's so happy they're going back 🥺😭@JamisonCoyle | @asgrimson | #StanleyCup | #TimeToHunt pic.twitter.com/j0n53ytprE
— NHL Network (@NHLNetwork) May 25, 2023
The Panthers did not play their best game of the playoffs on Wednesday as they grabbed a 2-0 lead in the opening period off goals from Anthony Duclair and Tkachuk before the Hurricanes tied things up early in the second.
Florida was too fancy on Wednesday, getting away from the style of game which earned them the first three 1-goal wins against Carolina in this series.
But, after Ryan Lomberg scored in the second to make it 3-2, Florida was back to playing the style which brought them success against Toronto and these Hurricanes.
Only Jesper Fast scored to tie things again with 3:22 left and it looked like yet another overtime ending for the Panthers and Hurricanes.
Jordan Staal then got called for hooking with 57 seconds remaining, the Panthers went on the power play and burned what had been an impenetrable Carolina penalty kill as Tkachuk struck again.
With that, the party continues in South Florida as the Panthers move on and hand things back to the Heat in Boston.
”We are a special group, there is no doubt about that,’’ Lomberg said. “We are as tight a team as I have ever been on. I am very proud. Very, very proud. It is very hard to get to where we are right now. Obviously a big challenge ahead.”
Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel fired up the crowd before the game with the sight of Jaromir Jagr returning to Sunrise for the first time since the team let him go in 2017 kept the fans roaring.
— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) May 25, 2023
There has not been this much excitement around the Panthers in a while and they want to keep the good times rolling.
Florida now waits to see who it will play in the Stanley Cup Final but, unless Pete DeBoer can rally his fractured Dallas squad, it will be South Beach vs. the Vegas Strip.
OK, the Sawgrass and Sin City.
Regardless, the Panthers continue their first magical run to the Cup Final since 1996.
Rubber rats not included.
Bring your own.
“Obviously you play this hard and this long for a chance. Just a chance,” Aaron Ekblad, the second-longest tenured Florida player after Barkov, said.
“We have an opportunity here and it is a really cool feeling. A childhood dream. Barky and I have been here the longest. This feeling is hard to explain.”
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