document.write(''); These panthers have been a long time coming - Simo Baha

These panthers have been a long time coming

I remember another Panthers-Hurricanes game not too long ago. It was early in the 2016-17 season, and the Panthers, who had returned to the playoffs for the first time the previous spring, were struggling. The sleeper loss in the relay sealed the end for head coach Gerard Gallant, who was fired shortly after the game. His luggage was carelessly thrown off the team bus bound for the airport, and Gallant was told to find his own way. Which led to a series of spectacular photos of the coach, aided by a Canes assistant, waiting for a taxi. It was the visual symbol of what the franchise was then and looked like it could ever be; undirected and frivolous.

These Florida Panthers are not those Florida Panthers. This Panthers is a long term roster building win. They are an eight seed, but one that was hot throughout the stretch. They are giant killers, taking hits and getting back up to knock out the historically great Bruins, stamping all over the Maple Leafs and now sweeping a very good Hurricanes team. They are winners of 11 of their last 12 playoff games. They are the champions of the Eastern Conference. They will be the underdogs once again.

Wednesday night’s 4-3 home win started well and ended well for Florida. Anthony Duclair got the Cats on the board just 41 seconds in and Matthew Tkachuk lit up his Conn Smythe 10 minutes later. But the Hurricanes fought back. they deserved better in this series, losing four one-goal games without much of their healthy offensive talent that tied the game in the second. The Panthers struck again, but the Canes tied it at three straight with just over three minutes remaining. It felt like more overtime was coming. It felt that way until 4.9 seconds remained.

“Who else, right?” asked Aaron Ekblad, “Who else?” Who else?” Who else but Matthew Tkachuk, the sensational offseason addition who forced his way out of Calgary and added an extra gear to a Panthers team that clearly had talent but seemed to be losing an identity with which to use it. This ” The Panthers are more physical and more edgy, taking their cues from Tkachuk, and more defensively under first-year head coach Paul Morris. But all that unsightly stuff will mean little without the goals, and Tkachuk brings the goals. This one was a masterful display of control and patience. . Tkachuk didn’t shoot blindly as soon as he got the puck in space, but instead waited for goaltender Freddie Andersen to bite before his shot. And then Tkachuk was on his knees, sliding across the ice, arms outstretched, an arena around him losing its totality. thought: Who else?

Tkachuk has been a cornerstone of Cup Final teams for a decade. His cornerstones, Aleksandr Barkov and Ekblad, didn’t immediately pay obvious dividends, and it wasn’t necessarily expected given the defensive dimensions of their game, but whose gradual draft development gave the impression that the Panthers could only be one. more of a franchise to squander his lottery luck, but have become veteran rocks that make their teammates better. Sergey Bobrovsky is playing the part of the playoffs Bob was hoping for when so much was thrown at him four years ago. GM Bill Zito, hired in 2020, pulled the right levers with a series of trades and free agents that have been better at Sunrise than they ever were for their previous teams. Duclair, Brandon Montour, Gustav Forsling, and especially Carter Verhagen, Sam Reinhart, and Sam Bennett. As Mark Lazerus explains in a nice article in The Athletic , it’s not like these guys were diamonds in the rough, or the Panthers were. can unlock skills that other organizations could not. All the more so because at Florida they have been provided the opportunities and classmates to maximize what they have to offer. You may have all the right parts, but if you don’t put them together, you may as well have none at all.

That was the case with last season’s Presidents Cup winners, who bombed in a second-round sweep. So Paul Morris worked his magic and, yes, Zito went out and got Tkachuk, one of the game’s most frustrating opponents and talented teammates. If it seems like the Panthers have been building to this for years, it was never inevitable. it required a series of good hires and good decisions, and a commitment to a program that believed in the core, but the flexibility to get a superstar when one unexpectedly became available. And in less than a year, Tkachuk has provided the Panthers with much more than just a goal scorer. He gave them an identity.

I remember another Panthers team in 1996. Those Panthers were something magical and illogical, one of those monster runs that sometimes happen in this sport. That Panthers would win the franchise’s last playoff series for another 26 years. Those Panthers felt (and feel) like happy-go-lucky in a way these Panthers don’t.

These Panthers are real, and they’re just not happy to be here. They laid their grubby mitts on the Prince of Wales Cup, slowly bucking the silly, superstitious “tradition” that’s younger than the Panthers franchise. They have a good reason to celebrate, even if there is another celebration to be won or watched. “We earned that thing,” explained Tkachuk. “We did it the hard way.”

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