So many NHL teams have used a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality as fuel in the playoffs, even when it doesn’t really make sense. Something about a “haters are praying on my downfall mindset” just gets the juices flowing and builds a sense of camaraderie, even if it’s manufactured.
But whew boy, there’s been nothing manufactured about these eighth-seeded Florida Panthers feeling like the underdog–or rather, the under kitties–throughout the 2022-23 playoffs. When they punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final Wednesday, sweeping the Hurricanes with yet another Matthew Tkachuk dramatic game-winning goal, they became the only team in the NHL’s expansion era to reach the Final after spending less than 30 percent of the season in a playoff spot.
“When we were playing Boston, the only people who thought we could beat them were myself and my teammates in that locker room,” Tkachuk told TNT after Wednesday’s game at Florida Live Arena. “I’m not going to lie, that series set us up for even more confidence. We went into the playoffs with a great record going in and had confidence, but anytime you’re playing the No. 1 team in NHL history you know how much of an underdog you are. We gained a lot of confidence from that series, we’ve been an underdog in every series so far, and we’re going to continue to be in the Stanley Cup Final. God, it feels good to say that, that’s pretty cool. We believe in ourselves, and not many people do.”
If you don’t believe in Tkachuk the Florida Panthers at this point, I don’t know what to tell you. Here are the top five reasons they’re punching an unexpected-yet-fully-deserved ticket to the Stanley Cup Final this year.
Many were wondering if this would be the year the narrative that having a hot goalie means everything in the playoffs would be challenged. And I mean, it has been challenged to some degree.
You look at the Golden Knights deciding to roll with Adin Hill and making it work. The Devils made it to the second round with their trigger-happy rotation of rookie Akira Schmidt and Vitek Vanecek. The Hurricanes beat New Jersey with a Freddie Andersen and Antti Raanta tag team. On the flip side, you look at the three best regular-season goaltenders in the league — Linus Ullmark, Ilya Sorokin, Igor Shesterkin — all suffering first-round exits.
And yes, these Panthers have had so much more to offer than just hot goaltending. But none of this is possible without Sergei Bobrovsky’s Conn Smythe-caliber resurgence in their net.
The 34-year-old with the polarizing $10 million AAV has been the best goaltender of the playoffs and it isn’t a contest. According to MoneyPuck.com, his 19.5 goals saved above expected are the third highest for a playoff goalie since modern stats started in 2008. MoneyPuck has him leading in every notable stat, including Wins Above Replacement with 3.25 (Shesterkin was next at 1.46) and GAA better than expected at 1.40.
Did we mention that he’s made the most saves in a 4-game sweep in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Look it up, it’s true.
He’s 11-2-0 with a 2.15 GAA and a .935 save percentage. He makes timely saves. He makes untimely saves. Ever since he got that first start halfway through the Bruins series, he ran with it and we need to give some credit to the Panthers’ coaching staff for making it that simple.
Traditionalists were up in arms and clutching their pearls about their beloved TV ratings ahead of the Eastern Conference Final. Would Carolina-Florida move the needle? Will the cap ceiling ever raise again? Will Canadians ever know peace?
Throw it all out the window. Nothing is better for growing the game of hockey than the electric tear Matthew Tkachuk is currently on.
His most recent game-winner sent the Panthers to the Final with 4.3 seconds left in regulation tied the latest game-winning goal in regulation to clinch a series in Stanley Cup Playoff history.
You kind of knew he was going to do it, too, considering his current run. Through 16 games, so far, he’s had nine goals, 12 assists, three overtime winners (including a quadruple-overtime ender), 37 high-danger chances (via natural stat trick), and 3,000 good vibes (H/T Dimitri Filipovic). He scored two goals in Game 4 on only five total shots. He and his line have dominated matchups in all three rounds.
“Who else, right?” Aaron Ekblad said Wednesday after Tkachuk’s buzzer beater. “What he’s done is unexplainable.”
It’s not just about the clutch goals, it’s Tkachuk’s enthusiasm for the game and his hilarious goal celebrations. It has us wondering if maybe hockey is actually allowed to be fun. Tkachuk is on a one-man mission to invigorate the sport, and as much as his clutch factor has broken multiple franchises’ hearts this postseason, you have to respect it.
Expanding on what Tkachuk has individually done, this whole Panthers team has just found a knack for the clutch. And as Tkachuk said, maybe it all started with the confidence gained in that first-round series against the Bruins. It felt like every time Boston dared to mishandle the puck in the wrong zone, a Panther was there to collect said puck and stuff it into the Bruins’ net.
The Bruins would give it away, and then the Panthers would take it. Then the Maple Leafs would give it away, and the Panthers would take it. As the Panthers swept the Hurricanes in the conference finals, though, it felt more like it was theirs to lose for once — even though they were the underdogs on paper.
Does lack of pressure in the face of overwhelmingly slim odds have something to do with it? Is it the solid record and playoff shape the team rounded into after the All-Star break?
There’s just something about this team that’s hard to put your finger on, whether it’s Sam Bennett trading Tkachuk with their “pest-or-hero” roles on any given night, Bobrovsky’s out-of-almost-nowhere resurgence, Brandon Montour’s tour de force (can you win a Norris in the postseason?), or Anthony Duclair’s big comeback.
Maybe the best way to describe it is also the most simple: The vibes are incredible.
You have got to hand it to GM of the year finalist Bill Zito: He might’ve grossly overpaid Bobrovsky as Bobrovsky underperformed for a few years. He might’ve only made one big off-season move (you know, the one that sent Tkachuk to Florida). He might’ve hired Paul Maurice of all people to replace fan-favorite interim head coach Andrew Brunette, who is now an assistant with the Devils.
Let this be a lesson.
Sometimes it’s fine to overpay on one contract, especially if that one contract is a goaltender. Keyword “sometimes,” people. Sometimes trading for the best player available is simply all you need to do. And sometimes, keyword sometimes, Maurice is the guy.
Maybe the real lesson here is none of us know how a contract, a trade, or a head coach hiring is truly going to pan out. Maybe, as we keep seeing in recent years, the Presidents’ Trophy isn’t cursed, but it takes a second to work it’s magic.
Perhaps it’s OK to wait and see.