Panthers oust Rangers, return to Stanley Cup Final

League: NHL

Posted on: 02 Jun, 2024 at 04:37 AM

Credit: Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Exactly 28 years ago, the Florida Panthers were a third-year expansion team that surprised its way to the Stanley Cup Final.

After constantly bottling up the New York Rangers defensively and getting just enough offense, the Panthers are where they expected to be and will get another chance to win a Stanley Cup.

Sam Bennett scored with 50 seconds left in the first period, Sergei Bobrovsky made 23 saves and the Panthers beat the Rangers 2-1 on Saturday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final in Sunrise, Fla., to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight season.

Vladimir Tarasenko scored the eventual game-winning goal with 10:52 remaining in the third as the Panthers won the final three games of the best-of-seven and claimed their third straight one-goal victory.

"We expected to be back here," Florida forward Matthew Tkachuk said. "Obviously nothing is guaranteed, but we expected this."

On the 28th anniversary of their 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Panthers became the fourth team to reach the Stanley Cup Final in consecutive seasons since 2005-06, joining the Tampa Bay Lightning (2020-22), Pittsburgh Penguins (2008-09 and 2016-17) and Detroit Red Wings (2008-09).

Unlike last season, when they touched the Prince of Wales trophy given to the Eastern Conference champion, the Panthers avoided making contact with it and simply posed for a team picture on the ice.

"I think we needed to do something different and that's what we did," Florida captain Aleksander Barkov said.

Florida knocked off a President's Trophy team for the second straight season. In 2023, Florida overcame a 3-1 deficit in a first-round playoff series to beat the 65-win Boston Bruins.

After knocking off the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes, the Panthers fell to the Vegas Golden Knights in last year's finals.

"Last year after we finished the Carolina series, the energy level postgame was through the roof," Florida coach Paul Maurice said. "Slightly subdued this year relative to that. It was lots of happy people but maybe we've got a little more experience now and I feel that way even on the bench. It wasn't insanity. It was excitement and rightfully so, they worked really hard to win."

Florida will host Game 1 of the finals next Saturday if it faces the Oilers. If the Stars beat Edmonton, the Panthers will open the series on the road in Dallas.

Edmonton leads the Western Conference finals 3-2. Game 6 of that series is set for Sunday.

"We've put in a lot of hard work to get back here. It took a lot, but we're not satisfied yet. We still have a job to do," Bennett said.

Bobrovsky came within 1:40 of his second shutout of the series until Artemi Panarin scored. Bobrovsky faced one other shot the rest of the way as Florida's defense continued to contain the Rangers.

Bobrovsky was also aided by a defense that held New York's star trio of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Panarin to a combined two goals.

"This is not where we wanted to be," Zibanejad said. "It's just an empty feeling."

Igor Shesterkin made 32 saves for the Rangers, who set team records for regular-season wins (55) and points (114) under coach Peter Laviolette and constantly heard comparisons to their 1994 Stanley Cup title club. The Rangers won their first seven postseason games but were held to five goals in the final three games of this series and were eliminated in the conference finals for the second time in three seasons.

"It was difficult to score," Laviolette said. "Generating the quality that we wanted to, we knew that coming in."

Bennett scored for the third straight game after New York defenseman Jacob Trouba lost the puck to Evan Rodrigues near the left boards in the neutral zone.

Bennett breezed past Trouba and passed the puck to Rodrigues before getting the return feed. Bennett then finished the play with a blistering shot from the edge of the left circle that sailed over Shesterkin's glove and went into the top corner of the net.

Tarasenko put the Panthers ahead 2-0 with 10:52 left in the third by converting Anton Lundell's centering pass. Tarasenko beat Shesterkin after a giveaway by New York defenseman K'Andre Miller.

The Rangers finally scored when Panarin ripped a shot from the left circle with 1:40 to go but their final shot was a 42-foot attempt by Zibanejad to cap the game.

--Field Level Media