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    Wednesday, June 12, 2024

    Panthers throwing knockout blows to anyone in their path, on way to Stanley Cup Final

    Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov holds the Prince of Wales trophy after the Panthers won Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals against the Carolina Hurricanes, Wednesday, May 24, 2023, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

    Sunrise, Fla. — They knocked out Boston. They knocked out Toronto. They knocked out Carolina.

    Jamie Kompon was not knocked out, despite Paul Maurice's best efforts.

    Let's explain: Kompon is an assistant coach for Florida under Maurice, who is in his first year as the Panthers' head coach. Kompon made a key adjustment to Florida's power play earlier in these playoffs, and it paid off when Matthew Tkachuk scored a power-play goal with 4.9 seconds left Wednesday night to give Florida a 4-3 win and cap a four-game sweep of the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals.

    Everyone celebrates going to the Stanley Cup Final in different ways. Tkachuk dropped to his knees and slid across the ice, his arms outstretched. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky threw his arms skyward. Maurice walked to the other end of the Florida bench and punched Kompon in the ribs; it was a celebration, a unique one, but a celebration nonetheless.

    "I wanted to make sure he felt that one as much as I did," Maurice said.

    Let that be proof: These days, the Panthers are up for any fight.

    Vegas or Dallas — probably Vegas, since it leads the Western Conference finals 3-0 — awaits the Panthers to decide the Stanley Cup in a series starting next week. It'll be Florida's second time in the title round, its first time on hockey's biggest stage since 1996 when it was swept by Colorado.

    "I still think not many people believe," Tkachuk said. "I mean, the people in this area support and believe in us — but there's not many people out there that do, still. And we know that we've played some really good teams so far in these playoffs and we know that the next team is going to be unbelievable as well. More points, more wins, more whatever. We'll be the underdog, trying to prove people wrong again."

    Florida has been trying to prove people wrong for a quarter-century or so. Thing is, it has rarely succeeded. It took forever to become Eastern Conference champs again, as proven by the numbers.

    Wednesday's game was the 2,017th for the Panthers since that Stanley Cup Final in 1996. Aleksander Barkov played in 706 of them, more than anyone else. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad played in 660. Roberto Luongo — now part of the Panthers' front office braintrust — stopped 16,298 shots for the Panthers in that span. They used 412 players, had 282 different goal-scorers, went through 37 goaltenders, changed coaches 16 times, changed arena names five times, and even changed arenas once.

    And every year ended the same way: disappointment. There were varying levels of the anguish — 25 seasons between playoff series wins, 11 consecutive seasons with no postseason appearances, 10 different years of finishing last or next-to-last in a division. There was the occasional playoff appearance or division title thrown in there, mainly only providing a one-year period of false hope before the bottom fell out again.

    Not anymore.

    Even without — for now, anyway — the ultimate silver prize that hockey players chase from the moment they take those first awkward wobbly steps onto the ice in hand-me-down skates and with a stick that's probably too big, this is the golden age of Panthers hockey.

    "We have people believing in this team," owner Vincent Viola said earlier in these playoffs, and he's not wrong.

    The Panthers made the qualifying round in the pandemic-interrupted season ending in 2020, then the first round of the playoffs in 2021, the second round and a Presidents' Trophy in 2022, and now have a chance to win the Stanley Cup.

    "Waiting, working to get here, to get to this opportunity," Ekblad said. "Obviously, it's been a long time coming. For us, for them, it's huge, exciting."

    Making this one even better, perhaps, is this: Few could have seen this run coming.

    Florida finished the regular season with 92 points, the fewest of any of the 16 playoff teams — and one fewer point than Calgary, a team that didn't even make the West playoffs. The Panthers had to play Boston in Round 1; all the Bruins did was post the best regular season in NHL history. They had to play Toronto in Round 2; the Maple Leafs tied for the fourth-most points in the league. They had to play Carolina in Round 3; the Hurricanes had the NHL's second-best record.

    Boston wasted a 3-1 lead and lost in seven. Toronto lasted five games. Carolina lost all four. The Panthers have won 11 of their last 12 contests against basically the best possible teams they could have faced. Only two other teams in NHL history have eliminated three of the league's top four teams in the same postseason; they were Montreal in 1969 and the New York Islanders in 1980.

    They both won the Cup in those seasons.

    Florida will try to join them.

    "We know what we have in there, we know how to play, the right way to play, (and) we know what makes us successful," Tkachuk said. "Being in it with the guys and seeing the belief and just the calmness to us is really something special."

    With that, they hope one more knockout punch awaits.

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