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SUNRISE, FLORIDA - MAY 24: Matthew Tkachuk #19 of the Florida Panthers celebrates with his teammates after scoring the game winning goal on Frederik Andersen #31 of the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at FLA Live Arena on May 24, 2023 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I remember a different Panthers-Hurricanes game not all that long ago. It was early in the 2016–17 season, and the Panthers, who had returned to the playoffs for the first time in a while the previous spring, were scuffling. A sleepy loss in Raleigh sealed the end for head coach Gerard Gallant, who was fired immediately following the game. His luggage was unceremoniously dumped from the team bus that was heading to the airport, and Gallant was told to find his own way. Which led to a series of striking photos of the coach, aided by a helpful Canes employee, waiting for a taxi. It was a visual emblematic of what the franchise was then and felt like it might ever be: directionless and unserious.

These Florida Panthers are not those Florida Panthers. These Panthers are a triumph of long-term roster construction. They are an eight-seed, but one that was red-hot down the stretch. They are giant-killers, taking a punch and getting back up to knock out the historically great Bruins, stamping all over the Maple Leafs, and now sweeping a very good Hurricanes team. They are winners of 11 of their last 12 playoff games. They are Eastern Conference champions. They will be underdogs one more time.

Wednesday night's 4-3 home win started well, and ended very well for Florida. Anthony Duclair got the Cats on the board just 41 seconds in, and Matthew Tkachuk burnished his Conn Smythe bonafides 10 minutes later. But the Hurricanes fought back—they deserved better this series, losing four one-goal games without much of their top offensive talent healthy—tying the game in the second. The Panthers struck again, but the Canes knotted it right back up at three with just over three minutes remaining. It felt like more overtime was in the offing. It felt like that right up until 4.9 seconds were left.

“Who else, right?" Aaron Ekblad asked. "Who else? Who else?” Who else but Matthew Tkachuk, the shocking offseason addition who forced his way out of Calgary and added an extra gear to a Panthers team that clearly had talent but seemed at a loss for an identity with which to wield it. These Panthers are more physical and more annoying, taking their cues from Tkachuk, and more defensively minded under first-year head coach Paul Maurice. But all that unglamorous stuff would mean little without the goals, and Tkachuk brings the goals. This one was a particular masterwork of control and patience, Tkachuk not blindly firing as soon as he received the puck in space but instead waiting for goalie Freddie Andersen to bite before he struck. And then Tkachuk was on his knees, sliding across the ice, arms spread, an arena around him losing its communal mind. Who else?

Tkachuk is the capstone to a Cup Final team a decade in the making. Its cornerstones, high draft picks Aleksander Barkov and Ekblad, did not pay immediate obvious dividends—and should not necessarily have been expected to, given the defensive dimensions of their game, but whose gradual development gave the impression that the Panthers might have been just one more franchise to squander its lottery luck—but have become veteran rocks that make their teammates better. Sergei Bobrovsky is acting the part of the Playoff Bob the Panthers were hoping for when they splashed out so much for him four years ago. GM Bill Zito, hired in 2020, has pulled the right levers, landing a series of trades and free agents who have been better in Sunrise than they ever were for their previous teams. Duclair, Brandon Montour, Gustav Forsling, and especially Carter Verhaeghe, Sam Reinhart, and Sam Bennett: As Mark Lazerus explains in a good piece at The Athletic, it's not exactly that these guys were diamonds in the rough, or that the Panthers have been able to unlock skills that other organizations couldn't. It's more that in Florida they've been provided with opportunities and linemates to maximize what they do offer. You can have all the right parts, but if you don't put them together coherently, you may as well not have them at all.

That felt like the case for last season's Presidents' Trophy winners, who bombed out in a second-round sweep. So Paul Maurice worked his magic, and, oh yes, Zito went out and got Tkachuk, one of the game's most irritating opponents and talented teammates. If it feels like the Panthers have been building to this for years, it was never an inevitability; it required a series of good hires and good decisions and a commitment to a blueprint that had faith in the bedrock but flexibility to go get a superstar when one unexpectedly became available. And in less than a year's time, Tkachuk has provided the Panthers with so much more than just a scorer. He's given them an identity.

I remember a different Panthers team, the 1996 Cup finalist Panthers, in just their third year of existence—the Panthers of Scott Mellanby and John Vanbiesbrouck and a rain of plastic rats. Those Panthers were something magic and illogical, one of those freak runs that sometimes happen in this sport. Those Panthers would win the franchise's last playoff series for another 26 years. Those Panthers feel (and felt) like a happy fluke in the way these Panthers do not.

These Panthers are for real, and they are not just happy to be here. They put their grubby mitts all over the Prince of Wales Trophy, blithely bucking a silly, superstitious "tradition" that's younger than the Panthers franchise. They have good reason to celebrate, even if there's one more celebration to be won, or watched. "We earned that thing," Tkachuk explained. "We did it the hard way."

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