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.