“We want more”: Panthers eye Eastern Conference title, trip to Stanley Cup Final

For the third time in as many rounds, the Florida Panthers will be an underdog this week against a playoff opponent that topped 100 points in the NHL regular season.

But the Panthers are used to it by now and even appear to be feeding off it. After all, their improbable run continued last week, with a thrilling, series-clinching 3-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in overtime of Game 5.

“A lot of people weren’t expecting a lot out of us, including a bunch of Leafs fans before the series,” Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk said. “We weren’t hearing much of those chants afterward. So, that felt nice.”

Tkachuk, a first-year Panther and second-line winger who has become the heart and soul of the club, was referring to a group of Toronto supporters who made news on social media before the Round 2 series with their chants of “We Want Florida.”

But forward Nick Cousins’ wrist shot in overtime ended the chants once and for all, and secured the Panthers’ first trip to the Eastern Conference Final in 27 years.

Awaiting them in Round 3 is the No. 1 seed from the Metropolitan Division, the Carolina Hurricanes, who finished No. 2 overall in the regular season with 113 points. (That game is scheduled for Thursday at 8 p.m. in Raleigh’s PNC Arena) But point totals shouldn’t faze the Panthers by now. After all, the Boston Bruins, Florida’s Round 1 opponent, had 135. And Toronto had 111.

“Carolina is a great team, they have the best analytics in the world. They are hard to play against,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said. “So, you will not ever own the game. You’ll scratch and claw, and we get that. We are real comfortable in a hard fight. And we will take a good bunch of punches in the Carolina series.”

The Hurricanes defeated a young and dangerous New Jersey Devils team to advance to the East Final, and did so in five games, meaning they’ve had time to accrue some rest. This is Carolina’s first trip to Round 3 since 2019.

The Hurricanes are led by forwards Sebastian Aho and Jordan Martinook, who each have 10 points this postseason to lead the club. Goaltender Frederik Andersen is 5-0 with a 1.80 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage.

Despite enduring season-ending injuries to forwards Max Pacioretty (torn Achilles), Andrei Svechnikov (torn ACL), and Teuvo Teravainen (broken hand), the Hurricanes have found much success this postseason, amassing an 8-3 record.

Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour — who has been impressed with the Florida Panthers’ playoff run, and understands his Hurricanes are likely in for a long series — said last week “we’re going to have to be at our best. The team we’re playing, they’ve got everything covered, top to bottom.” Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour, a former player known for this grit and determination on the ice, has a team that embodies that persona. The Hurricanes excel at making opponents play their style, which didn’t always suit the speedy Devils, or the slower New York Islanders in Round 1.

“I’m really proud of this group. I’m just the old guy sitting behind the bench just watching this and enjoying how hard everybody is working,” Brind’Amour said. “We got through the first series (over the Islanders), and now, beating the Devils, that’s one of the best teams in hockey. So, we should be pretty confident.”

Maurice is familiar with Carolina, as he spent seven years of his coaching career in Raleigh, and two years before that with the Hartford Whalers, a club that eventually relocated to become the Hurricanes.

“That’s where all three of my kids were born,” he said of North Carolina. “That’s a big part of our life there, and I think I’ve coached all three of their coaches … which makes me old. But I am looking forward to it.”

Maurice had plenty of success in Carolina, reaching the Eastern Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final in his tenure there. Now, in his first year in Sunrise, he’s looking to get past his former team and take Florida where it hasn’t been since 1996, the Stanley Cup Final.

To do so, Florida is going to need consistent performances from its top forwards like Sam Reinhart (8 points), Carter Verhaeghe (12 points), Tkachuk (16 points), and captain Aleksander Barkov (9 points). In addition, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who is 7-2 with a 2.82 GAA and a .918 percentage in ten playoff games, must continue his pace.

Panthers forward Anton Lundell believes all of that can happen. He leans on the team’s confidence in these situations, especially after barely sneaking into the playoffs last month.

“I always knew we had everything we needed to win. It’s all about us playing together, improving with every game,” he said. “We’re not done. We’re not satisfied. We want more.”

Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad — a career Panther who had a goal and an assist in the series-ending, overtime win over Toronto last week in Game 5 — will look to shut down a Carolina Hurricanes offense that features Sebastian Aho and Jordan Martinook. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Panthers, who lost to the Colorado Avalanche in the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, have never won the title in their 30-year history. On the flip side, the Hurricanes last appeared in the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, when they defeated the Edmonton Oilers to secure the crown.

It all starts this week with Game 1 at PNC Arena. Game 2 will also be in Raleigh, before the series shifts to Sunrise.

“We’re going to have to be at our best,” Brind’Amour said. “The team we’re playing, they’ve got everything covered, top to bottom.”

Jordan Lopez is a Cuban-American digital journalism student who intends to pursue a career as a sports journalist and writer, combining his passions for sports and writing. Lopez currently writes for FanSided’s Predominantly Orange (Denver Broncos) and VerdictMMA (UFC). He hopes his writing informs fans and South Florida residents about their favorite sports teams.