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'We have so much fun': How Panthers are staying composed through tense moments of playoffs

Jordan McPherson, Miami Herald on

Published in Hockey

The Florida Panthers had barely been off the ice a few minutes after clinching their second-round Stanley Cup playoffs series against the Boston Bruins, and Matthew Tkachuk was already racing to get out of TD Garden so the real celebration with his teammates could begin.

He had the itinerary all mapped out.

“Go to the hotel lounge, play some poker, have some laughs, watch some hockey,” Tkachuk said. “That’s literally the best part of all of this — other than the winning. I’m so lucky to be surrounded by such great guys. We have so much fun.”

This Panthers team has already gutted out two key series wins in this year’s playoffs — first beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games and then the Bruins in six games to make it back to the Eastern Conference final, where they will face the New York Rangers with Game 1 set for 8 p.m. Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.

A novice team could tense up as the moments intensify in the postseason.

But this Panthers team, coming off the heartbreak of a magical run to the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago only to come up short, is anything but that.

If anything, coming so close yet missing out on the prize is still driving them — and helping them understand how to navigating a postseason with such ease.

“I could definitely see when teams are finally getting in the finals and this close to the ultimate trophy and you don’t win it, you’re like, ‘I guess it’s not our thing,’” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “It was the total opposite for us. We got more fuel from that. We wanted to be there again. We want to be in the finals again. And that’s why it carried over to this year.”

 

Off the ice, the bond is undeniable. The dressing room is united. Everyone clicks. Jokes fly around until it’s time to get serious.

And on the ice, they are playing their brand of hockey — that hard-nosed, gritty, defense-first system that coach Paul Maurice has implemented over the past two seasons. It’s getting the results when they need it the most. Of 11 games the Panthers have played so far this postseason, eight were tied or one-goal games entering the third period. Florida has gone 6-2 in those games.

“At the end of the day, at our core, we’re a pretty darn good defensive team,” Maurice said.

“If it’s 1-1 halfway through the third period, that’s what we’re good at. We’re comfortable there. If it’s 6-2 or whatever, some guys are pretty happy but we’re not necessarily comfortable. It’s not how we’re built. It’s not what we’re built to do. Most games in the NHL are just tight. If your mindset is ‘Hey, we’re going to go outscore the other team,’ then a lot of things have to go your way for that to be true. You’ve got to get more power plays. The ice has to be good. You’ve got to be healthy. You’ve got to be fresh. You count on a lot of things being in your favor if you consider yourself a really good offensive team, but if you’re a grinding, hard team, you can lose guys and still scratch and claw and fight your way through a series.”

That composure, that knack to succeed in the tough spots, has been on display through the first two rounds playoffs. The Panthers’ goal now is for it to carry over for two more rounds.

“We’re a very confident group,” defenseman Gustav Forsling said. “We’re trying to keep it loose and trying to enjoy the moment, not be too serious about it. Everyone has really stepped up at the right time.”

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©2024 Miami Herald. Visit at miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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