After watching their team lose early in the playoffs the past two seasons, fans across the region are reveling in the Florida Panthers’ magical postseason, which continues this weekend when they play in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996.
The improbable run continues Saturday, when the Panthers take on the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The Panthers come into the game with nine days rest after sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final. In what must seem like an eternity ago for fans, forward Matthew Tkachuk scored with less than five seconds remaining in Game 4 against Carolina last week, clinching the berth in the final.
A significant reason they’re in Las Vegas this weekend is Paul Maurice, the Panthers’ first-year coach. He has 25 years of experience as an NHL head coach, and though he is returning to the Stanley Cup for the first time in nearly two decades, his veteran presence and even-keeled nature has worked wonders for a skilled club that needed new direction after losing in round 2 last year and round 1 the year before.
With 1,767 regular-season games behind the bench, Maurice is first among current coaches, and fourth in NHL history, in experience. And with 817 regular-season victories, he is second among active coaches and sixth overall in league history.
Maurice has been clear that everyone, not just his star players, is responsible for the team’s success, as is often the case with title-winning clubs. And this week, in a Stanley Cup Final press conference, Maurice mentioned players like center Sam Bennett, left wing Anthony Duclair, goaltender Alex Lyon and defenseman Lucas Carlsson, and how they’ve been significant for the Panthers all season.
So, while Tkachuk, center Aleksander Barkov and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky have garnered most of the headlines during this magical run, and rightfully so, Maurice knows his club wouldn’t be where it is without the contributions of everyone else.
Knowing that, let’s take a closer look at some of those other Panthers, and get to know them a bit more before the series begins:
SAM BENNETT, CENTER: Bennett has been an unsung hero on the offensive end, where he’s totaled 11 points, including four goals, this postseason. That production is not lost on Maurice.
“I feel he plays with that intensity all year. So, that when he gets to the playoffs, it’s nothing new for him. He can just drive that way,” Maurice said. “For a lot of players, there is a major adjustment to the game that is played and how that affects their own game. And it doesn’t affect him, because he kind of plays that game all year.”
ANTHONY DUCLAIR, LEFT WING: Duclair is another forward who has been one of the most underrated parts of the team’s postseason success. After returning late in the regular season from an Achilles tendon injury, he has been pivotal in the playoffs with nine points.
“He had a funny tour here because he came off the long injury. His first five games were fantastic, but he didn’t score,” Maurice said. “I mean, he had a whole bunch of chances. And then he got sick twice, and that really set him back. It wasn’t till the last week of the season before I thought he got back to it.”
ALEX LYON, GOALTENDER: Lyon was an essential part of the Panthers making the postseason. He was the starting goaltender at the end of the regular season, while Bobrovsky was on the mend from injury and illness. He finished the regular season with a 9-4-2 record and a 2.89 goals-against average, helping the Panthers to clinch the East’s final playoff berth in the final week. Maurice — who knows Lyon is just one injury away from playing against Vegas — explained why the veteran is such a critical piece to the club:
“He’s been so important for us. I think the month that we were here [for a series of home games], he really got his game dialed in at a National Hockey League level,” Maurice said. “The challenge now is, we don’t practice that much. So, he and Sergei [Bobrovsky] and [goaltending coach] Robbie Tallas really spent a lot of time staying sharp and dialing it in.”
LUCAS CARLSSON, DEFENSE: Another veteran who may not see a ton of playing time, but who will have to be ready and waiting for the call, Carlsson is a reserve on the Panthers. At this point in the NHL season, most teams play six defensemen in a game, and have the seventh and eighth practice with the club, and partake in pregame skates. He’s in that latter group, and Maurice talked in his press conference about how Carlsson was progressing in that strategy, both on and off the ice.
“That is why he is here. We have eight defensemen on the ice, and they’ve worked hard, they’re sharp, and they are ready,” Maurice said. “We are really happy that he can continue to play there, and [potentially] get some playoff games in.”
The Panthers figure to be tested early and often Saturday, as the Golden Knights are fresh off a dominant win over the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final. Both franchises are looking to win their first Stanley Cup, so history will soon be made either way.