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The Panthers Will Do Anything

Oliver Ekman-Larsson #91 of the Florida Panthers checks Jack Roslovic #96 of the New York Rangers into the boards
Elsa/Getty Images

This statement goes against everything I've ever been taught as a hockey blogger, but it's been stuck in my head since the Rangers got knocked out of the Eastern Conference Final: The Panthers look like they just want it more.

I know. I know! Every player dreams of lifting Stanley at the end of the year. That there's some gap in motivation that affects the results of a season beyond talent, roster construction, coaching tactics, and luck is an archaic idea. But I don't know what else to make of the Panthers' success at these most critical points of the season. As they win by clogging passing lanes, pressuring the opposition, and outskating their foes as they turn defense into offense, the simplest explanation really is that the Panthers are working harder than the other guys on the ice. Last year's run to the Final may have been as underdogs, but this industrious attitude has made them Cup favorites.

One quantitative way to assess the Panthers' dominance is through shot-attempt tallies. After dispatching Tampa with relative ease in the first round, they out-attempted the Bruins 440-276 across six games, then outmuscled the Rangers 469-372. They bullied the blueshirts into becoming shotblocking fiends and pushed Igor Shesterkin to hulk up into the best version of himself just to keep the series from being a laugher. While the Presidents' Trophy winners took advantage of their opportunities to make nearly every game interesting, there was no doubt at the end which side was superior.

The more qualitative way to summarize the Pants, however, is through the goals that make you go "whoa." These are the quick-fire attempts where the puck appears to be a safe distance from the net, until a few seconds later it isn't. They highlight Florida's unshakable desire to churn those thighs and own that biscuit. None in these playoffs displayed that intensity better than the two goals that procured this date with Edmonton. With one minute to go in the first period of Game 6, Evan Rodrigues blocked a Rangers clearance with his stick, hauled himself to the puck before anyone else, and whacked it back toward the attacking zone. Sam Bennett, a 20-goal scorer who's also the team's top ruffian, took possession while Rodrigues made a sudden U-turn at center ice. Together, they created a flawless give-and-go that beat Shesterkin while the majority of his skaters watched helplessly from afar.

Midway through the third, the score was still 1-0, but the Panthers weren't retreating into their shells. After a blocked shot on defense, a Florida posse rocketed toward the other end to chase an up-for-grabs puck. Eetu Luostarinen recovered it near the boards and knocked it back to Anton Lundell, who was in position to deliver a pass to a gassed-up Vladimir Tarasenko at the far post. Again, there was an urgency and a disruptiveness that left New York bewildered.

The Panthers put on a spectacular show in 2021–22, when they earned the NHL's best record and won their first playoff series since 1996. Their 340 goals that year outpaced the next-best team by 25, and that alone made them too hot to handle on most nights. But the defense was unstable, and the goalie situation remained unresolved until Sergei Bobrovsky rediscovered his vintage form in the 2023 playoffs. Simultaneously, new head coach Paul Maurice and marquee trade acquisition Matthew Tkachuk helped transform the identity of this team from drunk guys setting off fireworks to a bunch of bastardly parasites trying to claim every inch of ice. They do this before and after the whistle, poking and prodding their enemies while daring the refs to put their 88.2-percent effective playoff penalty kill to the test. That ethos requires a buy-in from the players tasked with the dirty work of wearing down a team over 60 minutes. But there's no more powerful motivator than winning.

"The word that popped in my head is last year was a wilder group, and I mean that on the ice," head coach Paul Maurice said last week. "It was so much energy. We still have it. But I guess the better way to describe this group is they're a more focused group; they're not quite as funny. They don't appreciate my humor quite as much. Because they're like, 'Get on with it. Get to the important stuff.'"

The Panthers, of course, do not have Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl, whose inaugural trips to the Final would be a massive event no matter the opponent. They'll also have to contend with the emergence of Evan Bouchard as one of the game's most valuable two-way defensemen and the constant presence of Zach Hyman on Bobrovsky's doorstep. But for as glitzy as the top of the Oilers' roster is, they have clear weak points like Darnell Nurse, Darnell Nurse, and also Darnell Nurse. Plus, they've shown a willingness to sit back a bit and let Stuart Skinner handle extra responsibilities in net, as seen in their Game 6 win where the Stars outshot them 34-10. A Panthers team this relentless could very conceivably spend large chunks of these games suffocating the Albertans while the Oilers pray for their power-play heroes to rescue them. But prayer doesn't win the Stanley Cup. To do that, you must kill, and not with kindness. Of the two remaining franchises, it's Florida who'd I'd least want to cross in Crime Alley at midnight.

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