Like 1990s moviegoers finding out Bruce Willis’ character really was dead all along, the Florida Panthers’ dominant run to the Stanley Cup Final has taken us all by surprise.
But what else do both of those plot twists have in common? We should have seen them coming.
Florida surely left its own trail of breadcrumbs in the regular season, right? Some hidden Easter eggs that indicate just what could be possible for the Panthers if they made it into the postseason?
The potential had to be there. Florida bullying its way through the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes could hardly be accidental.
Sergei Bobrovsky standing on his head?
Matthew Tkachuk wielding a (game-winning) hero’s cape?
Unparalleled scoring depth?
A breakout star on the blue line?
Paul Maurice pushing the right buttons?
These have been some of Florida’s greatest strengths over the last 16 games. Those seeds simply needed time to grow, so the Panthers could be at their best when this all-important time of year rolled around.
Florida was, after all, only in a playoff spot for less than 30% of the season, and didn’t have a great shot at making the field until the final weeks. Plus, the Panthers required a little help from the Pittsburgh Penguins losing their final two games against the lottery-bound Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets to squeeze into the Eastern Conference’s final postseason slot.
The Panthers grabbed a tight grip on the opportunity and haven’t let go. Florida’s will and determination alone should have put the hockey world on notice that once the Panthers arrived, they’d make landfall like a late-summer hurricane — unpredictable, powerful and impossible to ignore.
Which brings us back to the original question: Should we have expected this from the Panthers?
Let’s rewind the tape and find out.
Bullish on Bobrovsky
Sergei Bobrovsky is the front-runner to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP. On Jan. 1, that possibility seemed laughable.
At the time, Bobrovsky was 8-12-1, with an .894 save percentage and 3.32 goals-against average. Florida was sitting 23rd overall in the league standings, at 16-18-4. Those two things were likely related.
Goaltending is the backbone of any great team. And as Maurice mentioned before Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final, netminders must be special at playoff time for a club to go far.
Bobrovsky wasn’t giving those vibes in the fall. From winter into spring though, Bobrovsky was on track toward a major glow-up.
The turnaround started slowly around mid-January, with a breezy 5-0-1 stretch from Bobrovsky. He became more consistent from there, and Bobrovsky fully re-announced himself as a reliable No.1 by going 11-4-1 with a .921 SV% and 2.63 GAA into late March.
If Bobrovsky hadn’t found his groove, Florida may not have been in position to push for the postseason at all. And had Bobrovsky not been felled by illness in early April it’s possible his surge in the playoffs wouldn’t have been so shocking.
As it was, Bobrovsky was replaced between the pipes by journeyman Alex Lyon, who produced the greatest run of his career (and a 6-1-1 record) to backstop Florida into its playoff berth. Lyon was then tapped to start in the Panthers’ first-round series, and Bobrovsky became something of an afterthought.
The writing was on the wall, though. When Lyon faltered against Boston, and Bobrovsky stepped back in, the veteran essentially picked up where he left off as the cool, calm, collected goaltender that improved steadily throughout the regular season. He’s done the same in these playoffs.
After stumbling briefly in the Boston series — Bobrovsky gave up five goals on 30 shots in a Game 4 loss — he has since recorded exactly one postseason loss, in Game 4 of the Panthers’ second-round series against Toronto.
That puts Bobrovsky at 11-1, with a .942 SV% and 1.95 GAA. Seem familiar? It should. Those stats aren’t far off what Bobrovsky was producing in the regular season.
Verdict: Pick your jaw up the next time Bobrovsky produces an eye-popping stop. Florida’s $10 million man was earning his keep before the Panthers let loose in the playoffs. Now it’s just a whole lot of fun to watch how, exactly, he’ll keep a puck out of the cage.
Matthew Tkachuk has re-written his own script this season.
That process began well before the playoffs. The postseason is merely highlighting how far Tkachuk has come (for those maybe not paying close attention).
The 25-year-old orchestrated his exit from Calgary last offseason by informing the Flames he would not be committing there long-term. That was the first bet Tkachuk placed on himself. Calgary acquiesced by inking Tkachuk to an eight-year contract and then trading him to Florida for the start of a superior second act to his career.
Tkachuk didn’t get his due for much of the season, though. Florida was so bad early on, with their season so swiftly deemed over, that Tkachuk’s prowess could fly easily under the radar. Meanwhile, the winger was having the time of his life, racking up a career-high 109 points and producing a second consecutive 40-plus goal season. And of those 40 goals, six were game-winners, tied with Aleksander Barkov for Florida’s team lead in the category.
When Florida needed him most, Tkachuk really turned up the heat. In the Panthers’ final 16 games of the regular season Tkachuk popped in 12 goals and added 13 assists. It was the type of stretch that helped earn Tkachuk the first Hart Trophy nomination of his career. Big-time stakes; big-time performance.
Is it any wonder that with a larger stage in the playoffs, Tkachuk has risen to the occasion?
Tkachuk is second in postseason scoring, with nine goals and 21 points in 16 games. He’s collected four game-winning goals — three in overtime, one with less than five seconds remaining in a sweep-clinching Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final — and he’s averaging nearly 23 minutes of ice time per contest.
And for a player that once earned his reputation as a pest prone to taking penalties, Tkachuk has been restrained. That started in the regular season, too, something Maurice was quick to point out late in the Panthers’ push.
“There’s a quiet maturation in his game,” Maurice told me in March. “You go back and look and he’s had [12 penalty minutes] in about his last  games. We need him on the ice. So, his maturation as a player, his relationships with the referees, his relationships with the game [have evolved].”
Verdict: Tkachuk is doing it all for Florida — and has for some time. If the Panthers’ record and position in the standings were better, would it have made Tkachuk’s dominance prior to playoffs more obvious? Absolutely. The fact that he’s emerged as the postseason’s most timely scorer is no great shock. Pucks found his stick when Florida needed positive outcomes in the regular season, too. The Panthers should count on that to continue in the Cup Final.
Rolling in the deep
Florida’s scoring depth is hitting all the right notes this postseason.
The Panthers have 15 skaters with at least one goal through 16 games. Five are in double-digit point totals. Six have scored one or more game-winning goals.
Even Bobrovsky appears on the scoresheet with an assist.
Being multifaceted up front is how Florida has stayed alive while other teams — with success more tied to superstars driving the train — made early-round exits.
To wit, Tkachuk has been the Panthers’ top scorer, but he didn’t light the lamp once in Florida’s five-game series against Toronto. Did that hurt the Panthers? Nope. Because Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett and Carter Verhaeghe are dangerous around the net, too. So are Barkov — and defenseman Brandon Montour.
Florida flows. They adjust. It’s more than picking up slack for one another; it’s recognizing how to make the most of every individual’s ability. Certain scorers have thrived in different scenarios, tasked with different matchups. There’s a chemistry to the Panthers’ group that’s making them dangerous in ways they didn’t always display in the regular season, where top-heavy scoring was more their speed.
The Panthers had a pair of players — Verhaeghe and Tkachuk — with 40-plus goals in the regular season. Reinhart had 31. Barkov hit 23. After that, no one was above 16. Contributions across the board improved along with Florida’s record, but the Panthers leaned on their best players to produce — sometimes to their own detriment.
Injuries and illness certainly impacted Florida’s regular-season depth issues. The Panthers have stayed remarkably healthy in the postseason and haven’t seen a player go down for any significant stretch. But it was telling of how far Florida has come in this area when Barkov left Game 3 of the conference final with an injury. The Panthers rallied to stay on course and still came out with a victory. Could they have lost a significant player from their top-six and done the same three months ago? Maybe not.
Verdict: Florida morphing into a proverbial Swiss Army knife of scoring talents? Low-key shocking. The playoff field is riddled with players going from regular-season playmakers to postseason duds. The Panthers are doing the opposite. They’ve turned something that wasn’t an obvious strength before into a crucial element of success. Score one for the “that’s a surprise” side.
Moving on with Monty
The Panthers’ postseason could have ended in Boston — if it weren’t for Brandon Montour.
Florida’s defenseman had a monster series against the Bruins: He scored five goals in those seven games (setting a record for most ever in one playoff series by a Panthers’ blueliner) and was at his best in Game 7. That’s when Montour not only got Florida on the board first, but lit the lamp again with one minute remaining in regulation to tie the game and force overtime — where Verhaeghe’s tally sent Florida on to face Toronto.
In Game 1 against the Maple Leafs, it was Montour’s moment to come through again, with the third period game-winner that got Florida off on the right foot. Montour hasn’t scored since then, but he’s still arguably been the best defender in all of this postseason.
Montour again proved his value in stunning fashion during Game 1 of the conference final, a marathon four-overtime ordeal that had Montour clocking in at nearly 60 minutes of ice time. He wore the workload well; anyone previously unaware of the defenseman’s vast capabilities could hardly discount them after that.
Montour’s excellence was nothing new. The 29-year-old blew away all his previous career-bests in a 16-goal, 73-point regular season that should have cemented his status as one of the league’s top defensemen. But Montour going the unheralded route was yet another side effect of the Panthers’ spot in the standings.
No matter. Montour keeps making up for lost time — and general underappreciation — by stabilizing Florida’s blue line when the going gets tough. He’s also among the Panthers’ best penalty killers and quarterbacks their top power play while maintaining elite defensive details. It’s the same elements that Montour has brought since October, for those who hadn’t noticed.
Verdict: If you don’t know, now you know: Montour is Florida’s ace on the blue line. Aaron Ekblad and Gustav Forsling have played their part as well, but Montour’s coming-out party in the playoffs isn’t some flash-in-the-pan example of overnight success. He put in the work to thrive at the hardest time of year. If he hadn’t, Florida might have hit the golf course weeks ago.
Maurice making it work
Paul Maurice sent ripples through the hockey sphere when he resigned as coach of the Winnipeg Jets in December 2021.
Would the veteran bench boss land on his feet somewhere else? Or would other teams be wary of hiring him?
The answer came when Florida GM Bill Zito opted to hire Maurice last summer instead of sticking with interim coach Andrew Brunette. Considering Brunette had taken over from Joel Quenneville and led the Panthers to a Presidents’ Trophy-winning season, it was a somewhat shocking decision to bring Maurice on instead.
Key word being “was.” Maurice’s hiring now looks like a hit.
Tkachuk said Maurice makes it fun coming to the rink. There’s a sense Maurice allows the Panthers to be themselves, an often rare quality in long-time coaches who can trend towards a stick-in-the-mud territory that doesn’t jibe with this new generation of players.
Consider the speech Maurice made after Florida’s win over Carolina in Game 4 made them Eastern Conference champions. It was short, sweet and embodied the fun-first mentality Tkachuk referenced as one of Maurice’s strengths.
— NHL (@NHL) May 26, 2023
“We are going to go now into, for all of us, the greatest time in our lives,” Maurice said in the viral video. “It’s a lifetime of work to get to this. And there’s something so much more important. And it’s actually not the [Prince of Wales] trophy. It’s the time we’re going to spend together from right now until we get a bigger [trophy]. It’s going to be the best time of our lives.”
There’s positivity from Maurice. He doesn’t lead with an iron fist but is no push over, either. He’ll defend a player just as soon as call him out — but only when it’s warranted. Maurice wants the Panthers to embrace the moment without letting in outside pressure, and that balance has kept Florida on track through every up and down of the postseason.
It’s no wonder that the Panthers have cultivated the ultimate us-against-the-world mentality. Maurice appeared to have put his team onto it well before the playoffs started. It was only last month Maurice admitted he’d lost a love for the game after what happened in Winnipeg. Over the course of this season, Maurice found his way back. The Panthers came right along with him.
Verdict: Coaching is an interesting business. Jim Montgomery (rightfully) earned heaps of praise for how he guided the Bruins through a historic regular season. Maurice pulled in far fewer accolades while Florida was floundering much of the year. But the Panthers’ eventual success should be in substantial part attributed to how Maurice got his group to buy-in instead of bow-out. The latter might have been easier.
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Ultimately, Maurice helped get the Panthers to this pinnacle — just four wins away from a Stanley Cup. And Florida has the receipts to prove this team is no fluke. It’s the rest of us who shouldn’t be surprised the Panthers eventually put it all together to come collect their (overdue) respect.