The Panthers throw knockout blows at anyone who gets in their way, en route to the Stanley Cup final

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — They knocked out Boston. They knocked out Toronto. They eliminated Carolina.

Jamie Kompon was not eliminated, 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 head coach of the Panthers. Kompon made a key adjustment to Florida’s power play earlier in this postseason, 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 their appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals in different ways. Tkachuk fell to his knees and slid onto the ice, arms outstretched. Goalkeeper Sergei Bobrovsky threw his arms skyward. Maurice walked to the other end of Florida Bank and punched Kompon in the ribs; it was a party, unique, but a party nonetheless.

“I wanted to make sure he felt that as much as I do,” Maurice said.

Let this be the proof: these days, the Panthers are ready 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. This will 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, people in this area support us and believe in us – but there aren’t many people who do yet. And we know we’ve faced some really good teams so far in these playoffs and we know the next team will be amazing as well. More points, more wins, more whatever. We will be the underdogs, again trying to prove people wrong.

Florida has been trying to prove people wrong for about a quarter of a century. The thing is, it’s rarely succeeded. It took forever to become Eastern Conference champion again, as the numbers prove.

Wednesday’s game was the 2,017th for the Panthers since the Stanley Cup Final in 1996. Aleksander Barkov played 706 games, more than anyone. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad played 660. Roberto Luongo – now part of the Panthers front office mastermind – stopped 16,298 shots for the Panthers in that span. They used 412 players, had 282 different 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 different levels of angst — 25 seasons between playoff wins, 11 straight seasons without playoff appearances, 10 different years finishing last or second-to-last in a division. There were occasional playoff appearances or division titles, mostly providing only a year-long period of false hope before the bottom fell again.

No more.

Even without – for now, anyway – the ultimate prize money that hockey players crave from the moment they take their first clumsy steps on the ice with second-hand skates and with a stick probably too man, it’s the Golden Age of Panthers hockey.

“We have people who believe in this team,” owner Vincent Viola said earlier in the playoffs, and he’s not wrong.

The Panthers made it through 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 shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

“Waiting, working to get here, to seize 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 race coming.

Florida finished the regular season with 92 points, the fewest of all 16 playoff teams — and one point less than Calgary, a team that didn’t even make the Western playoffs. The Panthers were scheduled to face Boston in the first round; all the Bruins did was have the best regular season in NHL history. They were scheduled to face Toronto in Round 2; the Maple Leafs were tied for the fourth most points in the league. They were scheduled to face Carolina in Round 3; the Hurricanes had the second-best record in the NHL.

Boston blew 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 games against basically the best possible teams they could have faced. Only two other teams in NHL history have knocked out three of the league’s top four teams in the same playoffs; 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 calm for us is really something special.”

With that, they hope another knockout blow awaits them.


AP NHL Playoffs: and


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