Tkachuk Ekblad FLA strong approach TUNE IN WED

BOSTON -- The Florida Panthers began this season knowing they faced a serious challenge that required a serious approach.

Perhaps that's the reason behind the transformation coach Paul Maurice has noticed in the Panthers this season from a sometimes-brash collection of players that surprised many by reaching the Stanley Cup Final last season into a more disciplined, business-first group determined to get back there this season and finish the job.

After their five-game loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Cup Final last season, Florida is trying to become the first team to win the Stanley Cup the season after losing in the Cup Final since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. Since those Penguins rebounded from losing to the Detroit Red Wings in the 2008 Final to defeat the Red Wings in 2009, two teams have repeated as champions -- the Penguins (2016, 2017) and Tampa Bay Lightning (2020, 2021) -- but no Cup runner-up has even made it back to the Cup Final the following season.

The Panthers are one step away from doing that after eliminating the Boston Bruins with a 2-1 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Second Round on Friday to set up a showdown with the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final beginning Wednesday at Madison Square Garden in New York (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ESPN, SN, TVAS, CBC).

“That’s on the group and the leadership because they came back to camp more focused, more determined possibly,” Maurice said Saturday. “Or they felt they were closer, so they had that belief when they came back. They haven’t been tired. There was no hangover.”

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Florida couldn’t afford to spend the first few months of the season shaking off a Cup Final defeat hangover because it began it the same way it ended the Cup Final -- banged up with injuries. Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour, two of their top four defensemen, each missed the first 16 games recovering from surgery to repair shoulder injuries each played through in the 2023 postseason. Second-line center Sam Bennett missed 11 of the first 12 games with multiple injuries.

Thanks in part to strengthening their defensive depth by adding Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niko Mikkola and Dmitry Kulikov, the Panthers not only survived those injuries, but were were 10-5-1 when Ekblad and Montour made their season debuts against the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 17.

That set Florida up to go 52-24-6 and finish first in the Atlantic Division with 110 points, an 18-point improvement from last season, when it was 42-32-8 and qualified for the playoffs as the second wild card from the Eastern Conference. 

“We had three really important pieces out of our lineup at the start,” Maurice said. “We had to play well defensively. They battled hard early on, and I think they got some confidence there. We were pretty consistent after that.”

As Cup contenders, the Panthers have faced a different path in these playoffs than a year ago when they upset the Bruins, who set NHL records with 65 wins and 135 points, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes to reach the Cup Final. They were the favorites in the each of their first two series against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Bruins and, led by their unflappable captain Aleksander Barkov, handled that without showing any signs of the pressure impacting them.

“Last year was very different,” forward Matthew Tkachuk said. “We snuck in playing playoff hockey all the way. But we’re clicking right now and we’re clicking on and off the ice, and we’re having so much fun. …  That’s literally like the best part of all of this, other than the winning. So I’m so lucky to be surrounded by such great guys.”

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The Panthers are undoubtedly enjoying themselves, but, according to Maurice, they’re doing it differently. One small example of that is their improved discipline, cutting from averaging 5.00 penalties taken per 60 minutes and a League-leading 94 minors in the playoffs last season to 4.62 penalties taken per 60 minutes and 40 minors in the first two rounds this season.

But Maurice says it goes beyond that.

“It’s almost 180 (degrees) in handling what we do," he said, "and it started in training camp, the focus by the group. It’s an unusually focused group. It took me a while to figure that out. I joked around a lot with the team last year, told a lot of semi off-side jokes. 

[Former Panthers defenseman Radko Gudas] would laugh. It was part of that culture of who we were. So I either got way less funny this year or these guys got more serious. I don’t think I’ve lost that. 

“It’s a more serious group, it’s a more focused group, so I haven’t really had to do much with it. I’ve just kind of watched them do it themselves.”

The Panthers will be back in an underdog role against the Rangers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy by going 55-23-4 to lead the NHL with 114 points during the regular season and defeated the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes in the first two rounds. But don’t expect Florida to change its approach, which reflects a maturity and confidence gained from learning what it takes to win in the playoffs last season.

“Different rounds, new series,” Panthers forward Anton Lundell said. “Everything starts from zero, but we’re able to just keep going where we left last year. It’s a new team, new guys, so we feel even stronger than last year. But we just believe in each other and try to do everything we can every night to get a good result.”