The Florida Panthers survived a late tying goal by the Carolina Hurricanes and a review when they went ahead on a Matthew Tkachuk power play goal with 4.3 seconds left.
That’s the kind of the fate that has the 92-point Panthers heading to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 with a 4-3 victory in Game 4 to complete a sweep of the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday night.
The Panthers have beaten the record-setting 135-point Boston Bruins, 111-point Toronto Maple Leafs and 113-point Hurricanes along the way.
Carolina’s Jesper Fast had tied the game with 3:22 left, but Jordan Staal was called for tripping at 19:03. Tkachuk circled out front to beat Hurricanes goalie Frederik Andersen for the winner. The NHL’s situation room reviewed to see if there was goaltender interference but declared it a good goal.
The Panthers were a 122-point team last season, winning the Presidents’ Trophy, but were ousted in the second round. General manager of the year finalist Bill Zito then put together a team that at first looked like it might not make the playoffs but was better suited for postseason play once it clinched.
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His biggest move was acquiring gritty scorer Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames in a summer blockbuster. He gave up 115-point scorer Jonathan Huberdeau and top-two defenseman MacKenzie Weegar in the deal. Zito also hired coach Paul Maurice to get the Panthers playing better defense.
Tkachuk finished with 109 points this season and is a Hart Trophy finalist. He has scored three overtime goals this postseason, including two this round, and scored his eighth and ninth playoff goals in Game 4.
Tkachuk and Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky are front-runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Bobrovsky didn’t enter the playoffs until Game 4 of the first round, which he lost. But he stopped Boston’s Brad Marchand in the final seconds of regulation of Game 5 and has gone 11-1 since.
Bobrovsky had his streak of allowing two or fewer goals end at eight games, but he finished with 36 saves. He stopped 63 stops in the four-overtime Game 1, stopped 37 shots in Game 2 and had a 32-save shutout in Game 3.
Hurricanes lose top defenseman
Carolina’s top defenseman Jaccob Slavin left in the first period after a big hit by Florida’s Sam Bennett. Slavin hit his head on the boards and then on the ice. He tried getting up but fell again and was helped to the dressing room.
What’s next for the Panthers?
The Panthers, who had never swept a series in their history, will face the Vegas Golden Knights or Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final and look to win their first championship. The Golden Knights lead the Western Conference final 3-0, heading into Thursday’s Game 4, and the Stars will be missing suspended captain Jamie Benn.
The 1996 Panthers were swept in the Final by the Colorado Avalanche.
What’s next for the Hurricanes?
They fell to 0-12 in their last three appearances in the conference finals. General manager Don Waddell has a lot of decisions to make with 10 players heading into unrestricted free agency. That list includes top goalies Andersen and Antti Raanta, captain Staal, Game 4 scorer Paul Stastny and Fast, who scored the series-clinching goal in the second round.