Matthew Tkachuk speaking to media

The Florida Panthers hit the ice for training camp

CORAL SPRINGS — It’s been a little over three months since the Florida Panthers were last together on skates.  The offseason was a short one – at least in comparison to most of the league – with the Panthers only getting about 100 days off between Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final and the start of training camp. 


With the NHL summer wrapped up, the Cats were back on the ice today to kick off what they hope to be a long and fruitful  2023-2024 NHL season.


“Honestly it feels like I was here a couple weeks ago talking after the season so that’s exactly what we want,” said Panthers’ captain Alekasnder Barkov at media day. “We want to have seasons as long as possible and that’s what we work for. We worked hard last year and we deserved to be in the finals. We want to do the same thing this year again.”


While the Stanley Cup Final loss wasn’t long ago, the players’ focus is on the season ahead, not the run of yesteryear.


“I personally hate talking about last year,” Matthew Tkachuk said ahead of training camp. “There were some great memories but it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, so you cannot dwell in the year’s past but you can keep it in your mind.”


“We got to create some new memories this year.”


The 59-man training camp roster composed of many of the guys who were part of Florida’s run to the Stanley Cup Final last year — mixed in with some new faces who got their first taste of Panthers’ hockey today in Coral Springs. 


Year two of head coach Paul Maurice’s training camp was as physically demanding as year one. By the end of the respective 90 minute sessions guys were leaning over their sticks as they tried to catch their breath. 


Maurice works his guys hard in camp, focusing heavily on battles down low, rushes, puck possession and end of session bag skating. 


“It’s a hard camp, last year it was hard and this year seems to be just as hard so we’re prepared for it,” Sam Bennett said following day 1 of camp. “It’s gonna be good for us.”


While Bennett knew what to expect coming into camp, off-season signing Evan Rodrigues was one of the new Panthers who got his first formal on ice experience with the team today. 


“I think that we’re going to work, that’s kind of the team’s identity… we’re going to try to skate teams through the ground,” Rodrigues said. “That’s why I signed here, I thought it was a perfect fit for me, it’s fast paced, it’s skilled, it’s hard.” 


Going back to last season, Maurice would constantly reflect on how hard the guys worked in training camp — laying down the groundwork that would follow them through their rollercoaster of a season.


The same message was planted into the ground, or ice, today. 


“It has to be at least as hard this year as it was last year, we should have increased the capacity to endure,” Maurice said. “I also think there’s a lot of danger in believing that when I come to camp that we’ve got this thing figured out. We have lots of room to improve on the systematic basis.”

As for last season, Maurice was fine talking about it as this new campaign is set to get underway. 


“For me it was an incredibly enjoyable experience. Instead of thinking about the highs and lows and the excitement, just ask the question. Why?” Maurice said when asked about the 2022-2023 team. “What is it about this group of guys that made that room the way it was? “


“We have to fight for the culture of hard and that togetherness they have.”


The players haven’t forgotten about what they experienced as a group just a few months ago, but they also recognize it’s a new year, new season and new chance to get back to June.


Florida will continue camp through Sunday, before starting preseason action with a split-squad double header at home against Nashville on Monday.

The Panthers will not be sitting any of their available veterans on Monday, per Maurice.

Five Panthers prospects to keep on your radar after Development Camp

After five days of on and off-ice activities, the Florida Panthers  wrapped up their Development Camp Friday in Coral Springs.


As the guys go their separate ways for the summer, here are six players who stood out at camp and should be on your radar.


Mackie Samoskevich — Michigan Wolverines (NCAA)/Charlotte Checkers (AHL) — FORWARD (20)

It was no surprise to see Florida’s top prospect Mackie Samoskevich turn heads at development camp.


The 2021 first-round pick of the Panthers had an impressive sophomore season at the University of Michigan, putting up 43 points in 39 games on route to a second consecutive Frozen Four appearance with the Wolverines. 

Samoskevich turned pro at the end of the college season, joining Florida’s AHL affiliate Charlotte Checkers for their playoff run.


The 20-year-old was undoubtedly the most NHL ready player at development camp this week — pulling out all the tools in both the on-ice drills and Friday’s intrasquad scrimmage.


Samoskevich is probably the only player from development camp that has a chance to crack the Panthers’ roster out of camp — which is a goal Samoskevich set out for this season. 


“I’d love to play down here [in Florida]. I think that’s the main goal,” Samoskevich said. “I don’t think it’s a far-fetched goal, I know I can do it, I think I can play up in the big leagues.”


Samoskevich’s tool bag is impressive — between his skating, shooting, hands and hockey IQ, he has the skill to play in the NHL now. 


Jack Devine — Denver Pioneers (NCAA) — FORWARD (19)

Florida’s seventh-round pick in 2022, Jack Devine caught my eye early on during camp. 


The University of Denver forward was great on his feet in close-quarter situations like the 3-on-3 and board battles drills. 

Coming in at 5-foot-11, Devine had no problem getting around bigger players — mostly because of his explosive first step.


He has an extremely quick shot release that stood out all week and he pairs it well with his skating. 


Devine will return to Denver for his junior season as he tries to win his second National Championship with the Pioneers. 


The 19-year-old looked a lot better than many guys at camp who already had pro experience under their belt — he’s a hidden gem in Florida’s prospect pool.


Evan Nause — Quebec Remparts (QMJHL) — DEFENSEMAN (20)

While I don’t think Evan Nause will be NHL ready this season, I do think he is one of the best blueline prospects Florida has. Geordie Kinnear and his staff in Charlotte should be excited to get Nause for his first professional season in the AHL.


Nause is a 6-foot-2 smooth skating defenseman who isn’t afraid to jump up in the rush but understands his role as a 200-foot blueliner. 


The former Quebec Rempart won the Memorial Cup just one month before the start of development camp. 


Nause has a big frame, but he’s surprisingly mobile for someone of his size. 


His edge work and puck handling reminded me slightly of a younger Aaron Ekblad — who even now is still crafty with the puck for someone that is 6-foot-4. 


Defensemen traditionally take longer to develop than forwards and with the amount of NHL blueliners the Panthers signed this offseason plus the bodies they already have in Charlotte, Nause will have plenty of time in the AHL to learn the pro game.


Kai Schwindt — Mississauga Steelheads (OHL) — FORWARD (19)

Mississauga’s Kai Schwindt is Florida’s most intriguing prospect for me. 


The first thing that immediately stands out for Schwindt is his size, the kid is 6-foot-4. But while there’s a lot of tall guys in hockey whose calling is being big, this isn’t why I have Schwindt on this list.  


I say Schwindt is an interesting case because at times during camp he looked like a guy that should absolutely tear up junior hockey.


He isn’t the fastest guy but he moves well for a guy that big. The lack of elite speed is offset by him using his size effectively to carry the puck. He can shoot — during development camp I saw him go top shelf four to five times off the rush in about 15 minutes. 


He had an impressive camp that ended off with a snipe in the intrasquad scrimmage. Rookie camp should be another good week to evaluate his game.


Saying this, his offensive production in the OHL the last two seasons doesn’t translate to what he’s capable of. Last season in the OHL, Schwindt had 25 points in 67 games with the Steelheads.


“Schwindt needs to drive the play more,” Intermission Sports Steelheads beat reporter Mitchell Fox said. “He has the speed and energy to be an effective, gritty winger, but he needs to put it all together.”


Schwindt has the upside needed for a professional and if he can put it all together, I could see him in a fourth-line to bottom-six role on an NHL team one day. But he’ll need to have a better year in the OHL next season as one of the more experienced players on a young Steelheads team before anything.


Josh Davies — Swift Current Broncos (WHL) — FORWARD (19)

Ryan Lomberg is a fan favorite in Florida with his gritty play and sneaky offensive skill.


If you want a Ryan Lomberg 2.0, bring in Swift Current forward Josh Davies.


A sixth-round pick of the Panthers in 2022, Davies is a 5-foot-9 forward who hits hard and plays  in the dirty areas. Does that ring a bell? That’s Ryan Lomberg.


Davies had 34 points and 131 penalty minutes in 62 games with the Broncos last WHL season. When the WHL season was over, Davies signed an Amature Tryout Agreement with the Checkers — getting in one game with the team before their playoffs started.


The 19-year-old is hard to bounce off the puck and has a pair of wheels on him that will be crucial to his game as he eventually makes it to the pros.


He will return to Swift Current next season for his final year of junior hockey.


BONUS: Matteo Giampa — Bonnyville Pontiacs (AJHL)/Canisius College (NCAA) — FORWARD (19)

I went a little off the board here with this ‘bonus’ pick and took Matteo Giampa, an undrafted, unsigned player who was a camp invite by the Panthers.


Giampa tore up the Alberta Junior Hockey League last season with 92 points in 54 games with the Bonnyville Pontiacs,  while leading the AJHL in playoff scoring with 22 points in 16 games.


He’s going to play Division 1 hockey next season with Canisius College and will be 20 by the time the season rolls around. Playing D-1 hockey for the next few years should be a good indicator of how much Giampa can develop his game.

Giampa stood out the most during the 3-on-3 drills, where he was weaving in and out of tight spaces while getting quality looks on goal. He seemed to be really strong on his lower half, which is a good trait to have for a guy that clocks in right at 6-foot. 


In the scrimmage, he pulled out a trick from his hat, flipping the puck to himself and batting it in midair during the shootout — capping off an impressive week in style. 


Giampa going undrafted means no team owns his NHL rights and with him going to college, he can’t sign a deal with the Panthers or any team for that matter without losing his NCAA eligibility.


He had a really good camp so I decided to still include him in this list despite him not being a Panthers’ prospect.



Sandis Vilmanis — Sarnia Sting (OHL) — FORWARD (19)

Kasper Puutio — Lahden Pelicans (Liiga) — DEFENSEMAN (21)

Ludvig Jansson — Lulea HF (SHL) — DEFENSEMAN (19)

Florida Panthers goalie Ludovic Waeber prepares for first professional season in North America

While NHL development camp rosters are predominantly filled with players in their teens to early twenties, the Florida Panthers had a more experienced face take the ice in Coral Springs as they kicked off their development camp earlier this week.


26-year-old Ludovic Waeber is the oldest player at Panthers development camp and is without an NHL/AHL game under his belt, however the Swiss goaltender isn’t a newcomer by any means. 


Despite never playing professional hockey in North America nor outside of Switzerland, Waeber is by far one of the most experienced players at development camp.


The 6 ‘1 goaltender spent the last six seasons playing in Switzerland’s National League (NL), one of the top men’s professional hockey leagues in the world. b


His last three seasons in Switzerland were with the ZSC Lions, a consistent playoff team in the National League. His final year in Zurich saw him post a 2.50 goals against average, and a .914 save percentage in 19 NL games. Waeber signed a one-year deal with the Panthers this offseason.


As Waeber makes the move to North America, he and his family are getting ready for life in a new country.


“There’s a lot of challenges like just changing countries,” said Waeber. “Back home you have like a cocoon, you’re near family and stuff… so it’s a big change.” 


“The wife is coming with me and it’s gonna be a good year,” he added.


Coming to North America from Europe is usually a big on ice transition for skaters because of the style of game and size of the rink. That case is the same for goaltenders.


“Back home you have a little bit more time to adjust,” said Waeber. “Here everything goes a little bit quicker. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”


While there are no other Swiss players  in the Panthers’ organization at the moment, Waeber’s good friend and former Lions teammate Denis Malgin was with Florida from 2016 to 2020.


Waeber said Malgin spoke to him about the Panthers after he signed with the team a few weeks ago.


“We talked a little bit together, he’s a good friend of mine,” said Waeber. “He told me it was a good organization and I should enjoy myself here.”


Behind the scenes of the Panthers’organization, the goaltending excellence department boasts names that have gotten the goalies at camp excited to mention.


Hall of Famer Roberto Luongo and long-time NHL goalie coach Francois Allaire are big parts of that.

“When I had the first zoom call with Leo [Luongo], Francois Allaire and Roberto [Luongo], it was a big deal,” said Waeber. “I used to go to Francois Allaire’s training camp in Verbier, Switzerland, so I knew about the demand and his philosophy of goaltending.” 


As for Roberto Luongo, Waeber was a fan of his growing up in Switzerland.


“Back home I had a poster of him on my wall in my room, so it was kind of impressive for me to talk to him.” Waeber did specify later that Luongo was wearing a Canucks jersey on the poster. 


Waeber says he plans to return to Switzerland following development camp to finish his offseason training with HC Fribourg-Gotteron before coming back to South Florida at the end of August. 


While Waeber is expected to begin the 2023-2024 season with Florida’s AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, past seasons have shown that goaltending situations in the NHL are never entirely written in stone. 

Matthew Tkachuk and Jimmy Butler led the Panthers and Heat to the finals.

Pressure Point: Heat, Panthers give S. Florida rare gift, face challenges

The malaise felt today in South Florida is the hangover from two exhilarating months of thrills and delights from an improbable dual championship pursuit by the Miami Heat and Florida Panthers ending with an abrupt thud on consecutive nights.

These two teams in very different sports linked by geography adhered to parallel scripts all the way to the bitter end, from No. 8 seeds that barely made it into the playoffs to riding companion waves of destiny that carried to their respective finals but washed out short of the trophy presentations.

We certainly hoped for a parade or two, but couldn’t have expected any more effort than these two teams gave us.

That was underscored in the wake of the Panthers’ humbling 9-3 exit at Vegas on Tuesday night when Panthers coach Paul Maurice revealed that four of his players had broken bones, including superstar Matthew Tkachuk with a fractured sternum.

In the spirit sharing the pain, Heat star Jimmy Butler sprained an ankle during the playoffs and appeared limited in the NBA Finals, though he discounted it was a factor. (Certainly doesn’t account for why he rushed that last desperation shot with 17 seconds left and ample time to work for something better.)

Playoffs take physical toll

Injuries aren’t an excuse. By any objective assessment, the Heat and Panthers were beaten in every phase of the game in their finals. The Panthers, for chrissakes, went 0 for 14 on the power play in the Stanley Cup final and gave up a short-handed goal to begin the Game 5 blowout.

The Denver Nuggets and Vegas Golden Knights were the superior team and deserving champion in each final series.

Still it is a letdown for South Florida because of how difficult it is to get to a championship series, and we may never see the likes of this again.

The Panthers and Heat nearly didn’t make the playoffs this year and will find it challenging to get back next season.

The Heat was overpowered by the Nuggets’ big men, just as they were by the Lakers in the 2020 NBA Finals. More brawn is needed in the front court, has been for years.

But it will be difficult just to keep key parts of this roster together due to salary cap constraints.

Heat in salary cap bind

The Heat already has $176 million in payroll commitments to 10 players for 2023-24; the cap is expected to be around $134 million. Three of five starters in the Finals — Gabe Vincent, Max Strus and Kevin Love — will be unrestricted free agents.

The team is committed to one more season at $29.6 million for aging guard Kyle Lowry. Duncan Robinson, relegated to a reserve role for most of the season though a bright spot in the NBA Finals, is owed $18.1 million next season.

Still, Pat Riley and salary cap guru Andy Elisburg have been painted into a corner by burdensome contracts before and found creative ways out. Already rumors and speculation are linking Portland’s eight-time All-Star point guard Damian Lillard and Washington Wizards veteran guard Bradley Beal to the Heat.

So expect the offseason to be intriguing, though far less entertaining than the playoff run.

Bill Zito, in three years as Panthers general manager, has also proved to be astute at roster reshaping, notably swinging the deal for Tkachuk while up against the salary cap ceiling.

With the Keith Yandle contract coming off the books, Zito has about $10 million in cap space to work with this summer.

Several Panthers facing surgery

The problem for the Panthers will be in recovering from this grueling playoff run. Maurice said Tuesday night that several players will need surgery and face months of recovery.

The NHL season opener is about four months away.

The physical toll and effort expended by both teams lends perspective to the spectacle of the past two months in South Florida sports.

“You can appreciate it now. What we went through is miraculous,” said Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who during the playoffs broke a foot, twice dislocated a shoulder and tore an oblique.

“The way some guys played and collectively as a team the way we played was pretty incredible.”

The region has had a fair share of championships but having a pair of lovable overachievers locked in on the same pursuit simultaneously was remarkable to experience.

Dual playoff runs captivated South Florida

For weeks we ate dinner in front of the TV or flocked to sports bars and arenas in neighboring counties (even for away games). We stayed up until 2 a.m. to see the Panthers win in four overtimes over the Hurricanes at Carolina to open the Eastern Conference finals.

We saw the Heat squander a 3-0 series advantage in their Eastern finals, losing a heartbreaker at home in Game 6, only to somehow throttle the Celtics in Game 7 in Boston.

Watching the Heat and Panthers win their respective Game 7s to eliminate Boston teams in their shared arena were high points of the whole postseason from a South Florida perspective. The opposite feeling is shared now.

Or as Maurice said, “This is one of the top four or five bad days of your life when you lose in the Stanley Cup.”

Then he added, “but even now standing here, I love those guys. They gave me a great year of my life.”

The Panthers and Heat have given all of South Florida a great gift. Now the baton passes to the baseball Marlins (currently in playoff position) and the football Dolphins and Hurricanes.

Hopefully dream chasing becomes contagious around here.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns

GAME 3 Stanley Cup Final: Florida Panthers gear up for the biggest game of their season as series shifts to Sunrise

SUNRISE — The situation the Florida Panthers find themselves in is less than ideal, but it’s not the end of the world — yet.

The Stanley Cup Final transitions from Vegas to Sunrise on Thursday night with Game 3 b​​etween the Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers taking place at FLA Live Arena. Vegas defended home ice or the “Fortress”  as they like to call it — taking a commanding 2-0 series lead to start off the finals. 


The Panthers will play in front of their  home fans for the first time in two weeks tonight. They’ll face a daunting challenge as they host their first Stanley Cup Final game since 1996. Down 0-2 in the series, a loss in Thursday night’s game won’t be the end of the season for Florida, but it will be as close as to having the writing on the wall as possible. 


 “This is by far the biggest game of our season,” said Panthers’ star forward Matthew Tkachuk.


Florida has been in uncomfortable situations before. They went on an improbable run to sneak into the playoffs as the lowest seed in the league — then they had to claw back in the first-round against a historic Boston Bruins team that held a 3-1 series lead. The Panthers have beaten the odds before, but this is no doubt their toughest challenge yet.


Florida hasn’t been outplayed by an opponent to this extent since the early games of the Bruins series way back in April.  They also haven’t seen consecutive losses — or multiple losses — since that series either. 


The Panthers ran the gauntlet of the East, losing just one game between rounds two and three on their way to the Stanley Cup Final. Going into this series the Panthers knew it wouldn’t be easy to get by Vegas and so far the Knights have thrown everything at the Panthers and then some. 


“They’re a different team than anyone we’ve played in these playoffs,” said Panthers forward Sam Bennett. “I think they’re most similar to maybe Boston’s size and physicality… we’ve definitely been able to handle that in the past.”


Florida was able to figure out Boston before it was too late, which is the reason they are here. They’ll need to do the same quickly against Vegas, otherwise they won’t be the happy team in the final handshake line of the year.


The hole the Panthers are in isn’t great, but the silver lining is that they can finally play at home. Defend home ice tonight and it’s a different series going into Game 4.


“I think the boys are fired up, a lot of emotions,” said Anthony Duclair this morning. “We just need to be a little smarter in certain situations.”


There’s still a lot of hockey to be played and then next two will be at the Panthers’ barn, a place that has been electric all postseason.  Throughout this run the Panthers have fed off the crowd and they’ll need it tonight. 


“The way we’ve been playing at home all playoffs, our fans are a big part of that,” said Duclair. “Just being home, having our crowd by our side and us being comfortable playing in front of our home fans has been a real huge key for us.”


Panthers’ fans will be packing FLA Live Arena for what will be the first Stanley Cup Final game in South Florida in 27 years — and the first ever in Sunrise.

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Florida’s veterans and former champions prepare the Panthers for the Stanley Cup Final

SUNRISE —  From the moment they put on their first pair of skates, young hockey players dream of winning the Stanley Cup. Whether they pretend to be Bobby Orr in 1970 or Patrick  Kane in 2010,  scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal has probably played out in more than a few hockey players’ backyard fantasies. 


Playing in the NHL is an opportunity presented to only the most talented of hockey players. Yet, the chance to play for the Stanley Cup may never come for many of the NHLers. 


The Florida Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights are in a position this year that 30 other teams wanted to be in — the Stanley Cup Final.


This June, both organizations will get a second chance to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Vegas, the second youngest NHL franchise, made their only SCF appearance in their inaugural 2017-2018 season, where they lost to Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals. Florida is back on the big stage for the first time since 1996 — where they were swept by a Patrick Roy led Colorado Avalanche team.


Vegas has a few of their original Knights remaining from their 2016 Cup Final team, in addition to a few Stanley Cup Champions like Alex Pietrangelo, Phil Kessel, Alec Martinez and Jonathan Quick in the room. 


Florida’s roster doesn’t have as much experience in the Finals, with only three players having a Stanley Cup to their name; Eric Staal (2006), Patric Hornqvist (2016,2017) and Carter Verhaeghe (2020). Marc Staal is the only other Panther to have played in a Stanley Cup Final. 


With most of the Panthers not having a finals appearance under their belt, their veteran leader behind the bench is also without a Stanley Cup to his name. 


In his 25 season NHL career, Panthers head coach Paul Maurice has coached over 1800 games between the regular season and playoffs. Maurice is sixth all-time in regular season wins by a head coach, and fourth all-time in games coached — yet in his two and a half decade career, he has only made one appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. 


The team and Maurice knows how big the opportunity at hand is — and Florida’s few cup champions have reminded them of that. 


Maurice said the champs have stepped up in team meetings, speaking to the rest of the roster about what they are about to experience.


“Those guys have great voices,” Maurice said. “There’s so many things that until you’re there you haven’t experienced it.  It’s so much better if it’s a player telling them, so much more impactful to them.”


Panthers defenseman Josh Mahura got his first taste of playoff hockey this year in Florida. The early season waiver pick up is now just a few days away from skating in the Stanley Cup Final. Mahura said he wants to “soak” in the experience. 


“It’s pretty crazy from the start of the year until now,” Mahura said. “Honestly it would have been tough to believe you if you would’ve said that [I’d be playing in the Stanley Cup Final].


Despite never playing in the Cup Final, Panthers forward Nick Cousins got close in 2020 during his time with Vegas, making it to the Western Conference Finals. 


“There’s also guys who have won a Stanley Cup too, played a lot more games than me,” Cousins said. “But whenever guys here are looking to get some intel, I’m always there.”


Cousins and the rest of the team is ready to get this series rolling after an extended break. Florida will go 10 days between games by the time they hit the ice Saturday for Game 1 in Vegas. 


“We just want to make sure we keep going here, the first three rounds were really good for us,” Cousins added. “Our team’s clicking right now, we just got to make sure that we pick up where we left off.”



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The Florida Panthers Stanley Cup Playoffs journey reaches its final chapters

This Florida Panthers season was a journey begging to be written, dating all the way back to the summer of 2022. 


If we were to break the season down like a book, Chapter one began in June. 


Panthers General Manager Bill Zito made the call to bring in Paul Maurice for interim head coach Andrew Brunette. Replacing the coach who just won the Presidents’ Trophy for someone who had resigned from their previous head coaching job the season prior was met with many questions from the hockey world. Nonetheless, this was the first domino to fall.


The second chapter would come a month later — with an even more jaw dropping move from Zito. After a disappointing end to what looked to be a Stanley Cup potential season , Zito sent shock waves through the hockey world — trading fan favorite Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar to Calgary for then 24-year-old Matthew Tkachuk. 


The Panthers entered 2022-2023 with a new coach, a new star player and many big departures from the Presidents’ Trophy winning team of the previous season.  


If we were to skip ahead in this story, the chapters that take up most of the ‘rising action’ were ones that had many questioning the future of this team. 


For months, the Panthers were teetering between wins and losses — with no continued streak of success to be found. November to late January was a rough stretch for the team, one which made it seem like their playoff chances were in the mud. 


The team faced plenty of adversity through their mediocre spell towards the middle of the season. They ran into depleted lineups; not able to play their full team together for months because of injuries or illnesses. They had an extremely grueling January schedule — playing nine road games across all of North America. 


Results weren’t favorable, and the criticism was loud. 


If you just got started following the Panthers as this playoff run began, you may be surprised to know that a good portion of the fan base were calling for Paul Maurice’s head just a few months prior. That discourse seems like ages ago as he is now just one win away from tying Doug MacLean for most playoff wins by a coach in Florida Panthers history, but more importantly — four wins away from the Stanley Cup. 


Through the “dark” months of this journey, there were sprinkles of brightness that would eventually become major factors in the future success of the season. 


Players thriving amidst the calamity included Brandon Montour, who was bumped up the lineup after the offseason trade of MacKenzie Weegar. More minutes and bigger opportunities from the new coaching staff saw Montour set franchise records, including points by a defenseman in a single season. 


Carter Verhaeghe would be another bright spot in Florida’s imperfect regular season. The 27-year-old would become the second Panther player ever to score 40 goals in a season, something that had not been done since Pavel Bure did it twice in the early 2000s. 


If goaltender Alex Lyon didn’t come into the lineup at the end of March and win six straight games with the regular season winding down, Florida would not have made this magical run to the Stanley Cup Final. They wouldn’t have made the playoffs.  


There’s been many great stories that have been carved out of this season, with even more being written this postseason. 


Matthew Tkachuk wouldn’t get a chapter in this book — he’d get his own arc. The new man in town, or should we say superstar, was consistently the most important player for the Panthers this season. When the team was losing, Tkachuk was performing. When the team was winning, Tkachuk certainly was a factor. 


When the postseason began, Tkachuk’s stardom reached new heights. His game winning OT goal against Boston in Game 5 kept the Panthers dream alive. A month later in the Eastern Conference Final he managed to one up that historic goal… three times. 


“He’s unbelievable,” Panthers captain Sasha Barkov said about Tkachuk after they won the Eastern Conference Final. “It’s been eye opening how great of a person he is and how he breathes hockey… it’s unreal.”


As we reach the climax of this story, the one who is sitting atop the throne has to be Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. 


Bobrovsky, or ‘Bobrovka’, as TNT analyst Charles Barkey referred to him as, was monumental in every series this run.


In the Boston series, he won three consecutive games facing elimination. Against Toronto, he shutdown the Leafs’ elite forwards for most of the series. And as the Carolina storm surged toward his net, he backstopped the Panthers to a sweep. 


“He’s our backbone, he’s our best player,” Verhaeghe said earlier this week about Bobrovsky. 


Following their Eastern Conference Final win, Paul Maurice gave his team a heartfelt speech, which was posted to the NHL social media accounts. The speech was what you’d expect of Maurice — somewhat poetic, and motivational in simple words. 


“We are going to go now into, for all of us, the greatest time in our lives. It’s a lifetime of work to get to this, and there’s something so much more important,” said Maurice. “It’s actually not the trophy, it’s the time we’re going to spend together.”


The early doubts from this story were answered as the playoffs ensued. Whether that was the Paul Maurice hire, the Matthew Tkachuk trade or the endless discourse surrounding Sergei Bobrovsky — none of those are being debated anymore.


Now the Panthers are preparing to write the final pages of this story — one which they hope to have a happy ending. 


This last stretch is what the players have worked their entire lives for. Getting the chance to play for the greatest trophy in team sports — the Stanley Cup. “It’s something you dream of since you started to play hockey.” Anton Lundell said. 


12 wins down, four more to go. If the Panthers can place the final puck on their Stanley Cup journey board — they’ll be champions of the hockey world.

Aleksander Barkov carries the Prince of Wales Trophy after the Florida Panthers earned a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

Pressure Point: Barkov the reliable engine that drove Florida Panthers to the Cup Final

The two most glaring reasons the Florida Panthers are headed to the Stanley Cup Final are named Matthew Tkachuk and Sergei Bobrovsky.

The indomitable duo, goalie and forward, has supplied the drama at opposite ends of the ice with heart-stopping saves and mind-boggling goals time and again.

The glue between those two, the cohesive link holding it all together, is Aleksander Barkov, the highly skilled workhorse filling every need along 200 feet.

Gratifying to see the captain and longest tenured Panther skating off with the Prince of Wales Trophy as Eastern Conference champs after Tkachuk’s goal with 4.9 second remaining completed a four-game sweep of Carolina to send Florida to its first Cup Final in 27 years — and not giving a damn about the supposed superstition about touching the semifinals trophy.

Barkov has been around for 10 of those seasons, most of them frustrating and forgettable.

He is finally getting recognition from a wide audience that eluded him while playing in one of the most overlooked NHL outposts.

Barkov impresses The Great One

It would not be correct to say that Barkov has been underrated. He won a Selke Trophy as the best two-way forward in the league and a Lady Byng given to the top scoring player who commits the fewest penalties.

This year he’s up for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy that goes to “the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.”

But seeing is believing. No less than Wayne Gretzky called Barkov’s highlight-reel goal in Game 2 of the Eastern finals “one of the greatest moves I have seen in the Stanley Cup playoffs.”

Barkov faked sliding the puck between his legs, getting goalie Antti Raanta to commit, then pulled it back and flipped a backhand into the net.

Paul Maurice, in his first year as Panthers coach, said he’d never seen anything like it. But those of us who have watched Barkov for a decade have seen him pull several through-the-legs tricks in shootouts as well as one dazzling in-game goal in 2019 against Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price, a likely Hall-of-Famer.

Panthers defenseman Radko Gudas said, “I would not even think of doing anything like that. He is our leader for a reason. He is stepping up in big ways for us. You know, he is the man for the job.”

Barkov’s contributions multifaceted

Theatrical moments aside, the way to best appreciate Barkov is to focus on him throughout a shift. Watch how he powers up and down the ice, as aggressive in the defensive zone as leading a rush. It’s no coincidence that the rest of the Panthers forwards have similarly sold out in support of Bobrovsky.

They needed to in Game 3 after Barkov exited in the first period with a lower-body injury and were able to hold on to a 1-0 win. The Panthers dodged a catastrophic blow to their Cup chances as Barkov was able to return for Game 4 — after a pregame sniff of smelling salts, his line scored in the first 41 seconds on a goal by Anthony Duclair with Barkov getting the primary assist.

It was Barkov who put the puck on Tkachuk’s stick for the series-sealing goal — his 14th points (including four goals) in 16 playoff games.

His contribution extends well beyond the scoresheet. Not only vital to the offense, Barkov is the Panthers’ best penalty killer. His presence is felt in so many areas.

In the four-overtime marathon win in Game 1 of the Eastern finals, Barkov took 50 faceoffs and won 28 (56 percent) while playing over 44 minutes. He had a goal and an assist, three shots on goal, five hits and three takeaways.

Barkov first Finnish Cup captain

Maurice said, “He has the size, really fine hands and the ability to make plays. He is just a very powerful man. Whether it’s an explosion into holes, a puck that gets off his stick hard and we’ve also seen some pretty nice physicality in the playoffs this year.”

Someone on Twitter pointed out that in the Eastern finals, the Panthers outscored Carolina 6-0 with Barkov on the ice while the Hurricanes had a 6-4 edge when he was off.

Barkov is one of those special athletes that fans deserve to see compete for a championship. He was visibly moved when informed that he will be the first Finnish player to captain a team in a Stanley Cup Final. (He is an ethnic Russian who grew up in Finland).

“Wow, I didn’t know that. That means a lot. … It feels great right now. Maybe later, after the season or after the career, maybe I’ll understand what really happened,” he said, adding, “It’s not just [Tkachuk] leading, me leading, it’s everyone in our room, solid brothers. Those guys are the leaders as well.”

Typical of the unassuming star, who Maurice — after the flashy goal in Game 2 — said was “the least showboating player I’ve ever coached by far. Most times he scores, you kind of expect him to skate by the goalie, tap him on the pads and say, ‘Sorry about that.’ But he pulled that move because that was the only move that was going to work. There’s no one-upmanship or showmanship in that man.”

Now an NHL-wide audience has the chance to see what Barkov is all about on the biggest stage.

Barkov was a big reason Tkachuk lobbied for the trade that brought him to the Panthers from Calgary for Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar.

Panthers find winning playoff formula

At his introductory news conference in South Florida, Tkachuk called Barkov “a top-3 player in the NHL. That’s a fact.”

His is certainly one of three indispensable components of this Panthers drive to the Cup Final as a No. 8 seed. But it extends beyond Tkachuk, Bobrovsky and Barkov, throughout the ranks including gritty forwards such as Sam Bennett and fourth-liners Ryan Lomberg and Eric Staal.

The vibe is completely different than a year ago when the Panthers got swept in the second round of the playoffs after winning the Presidents’ Trophy.

“It’s about being able to wear a team down,” Tkachuk said of the winning formula that surfaced in the first-round series upset of the Boston Bruins, this year’s Presidents’ Trophy winner. “The physicality, and our forechecks are really solid. We’ve got a bunch of speed up front and a bunch of heavy players that can play that way. I think we have 12 forwards that play that way.”

All following the example of their captain.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Panthers, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns


The lights shine bright on the Florida Panthers’ stars this postseason

Having two or three players perform in the playoffs won’t get you to the end goal. There’s no mistaking the significance in an entire team effort to win you multiple playoff series, and eventually the Stanley Cup. 


In the Florida Panthers case, they’ve had the necessary contributions up and down the lineup that’s brought them within two games of playing for hockey’s biggest prize . 


Whether it was Zac Dalpe’s Game 6 tying goal against Boston or Nick Cousins’ series winning OT goal in Toronto, Florida has had success running all 18 skaters this postseason. Look at Carter Verhaeghe, his 13 even strength points is tied for most in the playoffs. Go down the lineup to 21-year-old Anton Lundell — he’s played a huge role as the center of Florida’s third line. 


When your whole team is going that’s great — but when you pair that with your “big-time” players rising to the occasion — it’s a recipe for success.


Tkachuk, Barkov, Bobrovsky. The trio are the highest paid players on the Panthers and as you’d expect, an integral part to Florida’s operation. 


In his first season with the team, Matthew Tkachuk has done everything you’d expect of the superstar, and then some. 


Last night’s Game 2 win in Raleigh, N.C. saw Tkachuk score his third overtime winning goal of the playoffs, with the last two coming back-to-back in the Eastern Conference Finals.


He’s been a playoff performer or “gamer”, as Head Coach Paul Maurice has referred to the 25-year-old winger.


Tkachuk has been the catalyst of the Panthers’ offense in the playoffs — as demonstrated by his team high 18 points this postseason — which is second most amongst active players in the playoffs.


“He’s been huge for us,” Panthers captain Sasha Barkov said when speaking about Tkachuk. “Not just scoring goals (or) making plays. Everything about being a hockey player in the team, being a leader in the team… he’s been unbelievable.”


Florida’s captain has continuously praised Tkachuk for his play, and leadership role. But maybe the humble Barkov should look in the mirror — because he’s been just as important to the team. 


This being his fifth go at the playoffs, Barkov has played like the dominant Selke Trophy center he is. 


Defensively, he’s been one of the top players in the postseason. In the second round he ranked first in numerous defensive categories including total blocked passes, d-zone loose puck recoveries, stick checks, and d-zone puck battle wins. 


And well, this absurd 5-on-5 stat as mentioned by Jackie Redmond


The first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals saw Barkov flash the clutch offensive part of his game. In Games 1 & 2 with the Panthers trailing 1-0, Barkov came to the rescue — scoring in both matches to tie the game for the Cats.


His goal in Game 2 where he faked a between the legs shot was met with admiration across the hockey world, even from the Great One.


“That was one of the greatest moves I’ve seen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs,” Wayne Gretzky said on TNT’s broadcast. 


Barkov’s response to Gretzky’s praise — “Well I’m pretty sure he’s scored bigger goals. But yeah, it means a lot coming from him so it’s nice to hear, for sure.”


Paul Maurice also got his fan moment when Barkov scored that goal.


“I’m watching [Barkov’s goal] on the monitor, I’m like oh my god he just did that, that is so awesome,” Maurcie said after Game 2.


The contributions from Tkachuk and Barkov this postseason have played an immense role in getting the Panthers into the position they are today. Despite that, the Panther who elevated his game higher than anyone else on this run is without question the most important man on the ice — Sergei Bobrovsky. 


The two-time Vezina winner is having by far the best postseason of his Panthers’ career, and he very well may be playing at a higher level than he was during the 2019 postseason with Columbus. 


Through 12 games, Bobrovsky has a 2.32 GAA, .931 SV% and six overtime wins. 


You don’t win in the playoffs if your goaltender isn’t performing, Bobrovsky is doing more than performing, he’s owned the net. 


“All the credit goes to him. His preparation before the game, the way he takes care of himself, he’s a true pro,” Nick Cousins said about Bobrovsky. “He’s a real leader for our team.” 


When you see a guy making as much money as Bobrovsky does, with the accolades he holds including the Vezinas and international hockey appearances, one would think that guy knows he’s different from other players. I can’t say if Bobrovsky knows after all these playoff games that he’s the best player on the ice, but one thing is certain — he remains humble through all the glory.


“I’m fortunate to be here and happy to play playoff hockey,” Bobrovsky said after Game 2. “I just want to thank god for the opportunity, for the result.” 


This isn’t the first time Bobrovsky has talked about being ‘fortunate’ or grateful to be in this situation, and if the results continue to be favorable, it probably won’t be the last.


His teammates truly seem to have all the confidence in the world for him. He’s quite literally saved them multiple times this season, whether it was his Game 5 save on Brad Marchand as the Panthers faced elimination or his 63 save, quadruple OT win in Game 1 against the Canes — they know how crucial he is to their success. 


“I think tonight in particular… [Bobrovsky’s game] allowed us to take the time we needed to get going because we knew he was going to hold the fort for us,” Tkachuk explained about Bobrovsky’s play in Game 2.  


“We’re just super lucky to have him as the backbone of the team.”


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Matthew Tkachuk scored the winning goal for the Panthers in the fourth overtime against Carolina.

Pressure Point: Panthers, Heat have S. Florida soaring on remarkable playoff ride

Most of the time watching sports is a grind, often more heartbreak than happiness.

Right now for fans in South Florida, it’s an absolute gift.

The reward for sitting through nearly 140 minutes of Game 1 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals was seeing a Florida Panthers victory rat tossed on the ice in Raleigh, N.C., at 2 a.m.

Matthew Tkachuk’s goal ending the sixth-longest Stanley Cup playoff game came 12.7 seconds before the end of the fourth overtime early Friday morning.

The Panthers’ win against the favored Carolina Hurricanes came on the heels of the Miami Heat shocking the highly favored Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA Eastern finals the previous night in Boston.

The Heat followed suit Friday night with a 111-105 comeback win, sweeping the first two games of the series at Boston’s TD Garden, the same building where the Panthers eliminated the record-breaking Bruins in the first round of this amazing playoff journey.

Panthers, Heat fans seeing double — in good way

It’s a challenge for fans to keep up with two teams playing like destiny’s children at the same time and you can’t help but hitch a ride for as long as it goes. That means nightly dinners in front of the TV and abbreviated sleep, hopefully continuing for awhile.

But hopefully not another marathon ice dance like had the Panthers and Hurricanes in a standoff that seemed as if it might last until dawn or the ice melted.

Four overtimes was an excess of hockey even for Mr. Hockey, Wayne Gretzky. The Great One, on the TNT studio panel, remarked before the fourth overtime that he hoped someone would score in that period because “enough is enough.”

Tkachuk scores goal for ages

Tkachuk obliged just before the end of that fourth 20-minute extra session with a quick snipe from the right circle.

It took a moment to register that the Panthers had finally penetrated the Great Red Wall of Carolina, goalie Frederik Andersen.

“Probably my favorite [goal] I’ve scored in my life,” said Tkachuk, who has more than met expectations from the trade that brought him to Florida from Calgary for Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar.

GM Bill Zito swung the deal as part of a plan to transform the Panthers from a freewheeling offensive team into one that could play the tighter, grind-it-out style needed to succeed in the playoffs.

The transition took half the season to gain traction under coach Paul Maurice and allay doubts, but Ka-Chuckie and Co. have revived the Spirit of ’96 in South Florida, when the lovable third-year expansion Panthers took the region on an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals. That ended in a triple-overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche.

Panthers believe in ‘Bob’

This Panthers team has the talent and an upwelling of confidence that just might finish the job this time.

Since falling behind Boston 3 games to 1 in the first round, the Panthers have won eight of nine. Five of those wins have come in overtime. They have won seven away games in a row.

It took till tomorrow to score the winning goal in Game 1, but the Panthers put priority on making sure they didn’t give one up.

Veteran goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who started the playoffs backing up journeyman Alex Lyon, is finally playing up to his $70 million contract. He set a franchise record with 63 saves — including all 34 he faced in overtime — and didn’t allow a goal for the final 97 minutes of Game 1.

The Panthers believe in ‘Bob’ like never before, and he’s earned it while going 8-1 since an overtime win over the Bruins in Game 5 of the first round.

Heat inspired by Panthers’ win

While the Panthers rest up for Game 2 on Saturday, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo led the Heat back from a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter, combining for 17 points down the stretch that also saw key contributions from Gabe Vincent, Max Strus and others. Caleb Martin kept the Heat in the game with 25 points off the bench.

Friday morning, veteran forward Udonis Haslem told reporters at the Heat’s shootaround that he stayed up for the entire hockey game and was inspired by the Panthers’ dramatic win.

“Those boys got heart,” he said. “I loved the look on the fans’ faces after the game, too. That was amazing.”

Had to feel for the dejected Hurricanes fans who still had a traffic jam and a drive home ahead of them before an early wake-up call. Panthers fans had the most uplifting winning afterglow to carry them through work on Friday.

Tkachuk expressed that he feels kinship with the Heat’s Butler, who wore the Panthers star’s jersey at practice Thursday and plays a similar emotional style.

The impulse is to say that South Florida has never seen the likes of two teams simultaneously playing in the semifinals of their sport. Yet it was only about six weeks ago that the Miami Hurricanes and FAU Owls both made it to the college basketball Final Four.

The rarity of what the Panthers and Heat are doing is heightened by both barely making the playoffs as No. 8 seeds and beginning by knocking off the top teams of the regular season.

Both remain underdogs in their respective Eastern finals — incredibly, the Celtics are favored in Game 3 in Miami despite their 2-0 deficit in the series — but neither believe it.

Best time to be South Florida sports fan

If winning is contagious, it has caught on with multiple teams in South Florida like never before. Even the under-the-radar Marlins are second in the National League East and just got the first major league win from 20-year-old pitching phenom Eury Perez.

The Miami Dolphins have amassed a roster of talent to raise expectations for the fall. The football Hurricanes appear on the rise as well.

But right now, the Panthers and Heat are the gift that keeps on giving.

Get ready for more late nights at the local arenas or in front of the TV. This could take awhile.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns