SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Reminders of this run to the Stanley Cup Final will be everywhere when next season starts for the Florida Panthers. There will be a new banner to celebrate the Eastern Conference championship. There will inevitably be a highlight video recapping the best moments of this postseason.
There will also be scars. Missed games. And a lot of rehabbing.
The Panthers’ goal for next season is simple and obvious — get back to the Cup final and win it all. But coach Paul Maurice is sounding a cautionary alarm, already aware that the physical toll this postseason took on some players will carry over into next season.
“We’re going to have a hell of a time making the playoffs next year,” Maurice said. “That’s a fact.”
The math says he’s not wrong. Florida got into the playoffs this year by the slimmest of margins, just one point. There was no room for error, and he already knows next season’s opening-night lineup won’t be the best one Florida can have on the ice.
There were at least four Panthers who finished the season with broken bones. Some players will need a few weeks to heal. Others will need as many as six months, Maurice said. Surgeries will start soon, and one of the few downsides of making it to the Cup final is this — it’s a really short offseason. Training camp starts in about three months. Some Panthers won’t be ready by then.
“We had so many injuries,” goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky said. “The guys played through the broken bones. They found a way. We competed. … Yes, we didn’t go all the way, but we have done an unbelievable job.”
Matthew Tkachuk, an MVP finalist this season, played part of the final — and scored a goal, even — with a fractured sternum, courtesy of a hit in Game 3 against Vegas. He eventually was hurting so much that teammates had to help him get his pads on, get his jersey over his head, and tie his skates. He couldn’t play in Game 5 of the Cup final, when Vegas rolled past Florida to win its first title and eliminate the Panthers.
Aaron Ekblad broke a foot in the first round against Boston, plus twice went through shoulder dislocations, needed to pass a concussion test and tore an oblique muscle; he missed one game. Radko Gudas should have missed six weeks with a high ankle sprain; he missed one period. Sam Bennett was banged-up and kept playing.
“There’s no stopping now. There’s no stopping here,” Ekblad said after Vegas’ 9-3 win to finish off the series. “Bump in the road and it’s going to sting. It stings now. But we’ll find a way to come back next year and be stronger because of it. How could you not, going through what we went through this year?”
Progress was made. They lost in the qualifying round in 2020. Lost in the first round in 2021. Lost in the second round in 2022. And lost in the Final this year.
This much is clear: The Panthers are getting closer to hockey’s ultimate prize. This is also clear: They aren’t there yet.
Year 1 of the Tkachuk era in Florida was a success — even with an ending the Panthers didn’t want. They made it to the Cup final for the first time in 27 years, have most of the key parts of that run under contract for next season (many for well beyond next season), and now the singular goal for the franchise is crystal clear.
There’s no longer a question as to whether Florida is good enough to contend for a championship. It’s now a question of when the Panthers can get it done.
“All the good things in this game actually aren’t the game,” Maurice said. “The hockey’s great. We love the sport. But the best it can be is in a room like that. It was a brilliant year.”
Just like that, the ride for the No. 8 seeds from South Florida is over.
The Panthers and Miami Heat were mirror images of each other, all the way to the end this season. Both scrambled to make the playoffs. Both snuck in as the last seed from the Eastern Conference. Both pulled off an upset in Round 1, and another in Round 2, and another in Round 3.
And then came the title rounds. The Heat lost in five games, ultimately falling on the road to Denver — which hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time. A day later, the Panthers lost in five games, ultimately falling on the road to Vegas — which hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time.
“For sure, it’s something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “Every time I step on the ice, whether it’s a practice or a game, I’ll remember this group. Hell of a journey.”
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