No. 8 Seed Florida Headed to Finals
There was a time when it looked like the Florida Panthers would go from leading the NHL in points during the 2021-22 season to missing the postseason. The NHL predictions were not favorable for much of the 2022-23 regular season.
Florida finished 12-6-2 over the last 20 regular-season games to claim the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and starting an improbable run to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 1996, defying the NHL picks by winning the Eastern Conference title as the No. 8 seed.
When the Panthers made their first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, it was just the third year of the franchise’s existence.
According to the NHL odds, The Panthers were priced at +2200 in the Stanley Cup odds coming into the playoffs. Only the New York Islanders had longer odds. Now Florida comes in at +110 to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title as they wait to see if the Vegas Golden Knights can close out the Dallas Stars in four games on Thursday.
Here’s a look at how the Panthers got here.
Thriving as the Underdog
Nobody can accuse the Florida Panthers of backing into the Stanley Cup Finals.
Florida had to open up with a Boston Bruins team that set NHL records for wins and points during the regular season. The sportsbook had the Bruins as the heavy favorite going into the first-round matchup and those odds only improved when Boston took a 3-1 lead in the series.
The Panthers had to win three games in a row, two coming in Boston, to advance.
That set up a showdown with a star-studded Toronto Maple Leafs team that many thought was primed to make a run at their first NHL title since 1967 with the mighty Bruins out of the way.
Florida took care of Toronto in five games before dispatching of the Metropolitan Division champion Carolina Hurricanes with a four-game sweep.
Florida has won its last nine games when the Las Vegas odds have the team listed as the underdog.
Florida was 13-33 in the playoffs since topping the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1996 Eastern Conference finals.
The Panthers could equal that win mark perhaps as early as Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Winning the Close Games
The Panthers must have felt like they were playing in must-win games for a few months now, so when things got a little tight they were in their element.
Each of the last eight games played by Florida were decided by one goal and that included three straight overtime wins by the Panthers.
In the postseason, Florida is 9-1 in one-goal games and 6-0 in overtime. The Panthers have also won eight consecutive road games. Florida had eight overtime losses during the regular season and was 11-5-8 in one-goal games heading into the playoffs.
Making All the Right Moves
Florida made two eye-opening moves in the offseason.
Andrew Brunette took over as interim coach early in the 2021-22 season following the dismissal of Joel Quenneville, whose departure stemmed from his failure to act in a sexual abuse scandal while with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Brunette led Florida to the Presidents’ Trophy. That didn’t stop Florida from replacing him with Paul Maurice as the head coach.
The Panthers also decided to trade leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau to the Calgary Flames in exchange for Matthew Tkachuk in a rare swap of 100-point scorers in the prime of their careers.
Tkachuk followed up another 100-point season with a brilliant run through the playoffs. He is second in this year’s playoffs with 21 points. Four of his nine postseason goals were game-winners.
These were not goals that came in the middle of the second period, either. Three of them came in overtime and the series clincher against the Hurricanes was done with five seconds left to play.
WHO ELSE BUT MATTHEW TKACHUK pic.twitter.com/UgD1K9I7mf
— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) May 25, 2023
The roster is full of players who started their careers elsewhere. Carter Verhaeghe, who led the Panthers with 42 goals during the regular season, forwards Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett and defenseman Brandon Montour are other players thriving in Florida.
Montour was acquired at the 2021 trading deadline from Buffalo. After never scoring more than nine goals in a season with either Anaheim or Buffalo, he has 11 and 16 goals over the last two seasons.
Reinhart, also a former Buffalo Sabres standout, has 64 regular-season goals and 10 more in the playoffs in his two seasons with Florida.
Bennett was also picked up at the 2021 trading deadline and he had 15 points in his first 10 games with the Panthers. After a quiet regular season, he has four goals and seven assists in 15 playoff games.
What About Bob?
When the playoffs began, it was Alex Lyon and not former Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes.
Bobrovsky’s regular-season marks of a 3.07 goals-against average and .901 save percentage were among the worst in his NHL career.
It has been a different story in the playoffs with a goals-against average of 2.21 and save percentage of .935.
His numbers against the Hurricanes were something to behold with six goals allowed on 174 shots. Florida was outshot 43.5-31.8 and lost more faceoffs than it won in the four games.
According to the NHL betting lines, Bobrovsky is now priced at +225 to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. His closest competitor is teammate Tkachuk at +325 followed by Jack Eichel of the Vegas Golden Knights at +600.