Panthers off day 52124 Tonight bug

NEW YORK -- The Florida Panthers feared the dreaded hangover associated with reaching the Stanley Cup Final and coming up short.

They know the unflattering history of teams that have walked their path, and they are intimately familiar with the feelings of regret and longing that are part of failing on the grandest of stages.

“We all certainly had that feeling in our stomachs,” said Bill Zito, the general manager of the Panthers.

In the offseason, still smarting from the disappointment, the Panthers decided the hair of the dog was the best cure for such a powerful hangover.

So they showed up for the 2023-24 NHL regular season in better shape and more focused than the team that lost in the 2023 Stanley Cup Final to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games.

There were no excuses. They wanted to be in the mix, they wanted a shot at redemption.

And, here they are in the Eastern Conference Final for the second straight season, facing the New York Rangers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy as the League’s best team in the regular season.

“Last year, I think we were riding the wave a little bit like this year,” Florida forward Matthew Tkachuk said. “But, going into this, we ultimately know what it’s going to take to ultimately come out on top.

“We are expecting the Rangers to give us a very good challenge. They have been the best team all regular season and, so far, the best team in the playoffs. It’s a great opportunity to show what we are capable of. It’s going to be a great series.”

Game 1 of the best-of-7 series is at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ESPN, SN, TVAS, CBC).

The NHL Tonight crew reviews the Rangers vs. Panthers

Last season, the Panthers benefitted from hard work and fortunate outcomes in the final week of the regular season to get into the playoffs as the second wild card from the East. Then they came back to beat the Boston Bruins, the Presidents’ Trophy winners last season, in seven games, upset the Toronto Maple Leafs and then oust the Carolina Hurricanes in four one-goal games in the conference final.

These are not those Panthers.

“It is a different feel,” Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “I think we learned a lot from last year and we’re maybe in a better situation. But, at the end of the day, it’s still the same spot.”

This time, they beat their cross-state rivals in the first round and the Bruins in the second round. In each round they were expected to win.

It’s part of the destiny of facing their failures.

“This is a huge stage for us, for our team, and it’s different from last year, for sure, and we’re looking forward to it,” Tkachuk said.

Coach Paul Maurice saw the difference immediately during a grueling five-day training camp, even though they were still dealing with the fallout from last season’s playoffs.

Tkachuk was nowhere near 100 percent and Ekblad and defenseman Brandon Montour were still out of service.

Yet, there were no excuses, just determination.

“Maybe it’s always those things, the adversity that makes you better,” Maurice said.

Instead of needing Maurice to navigate the ship, it was on autopilot, with the players doing the work, delivering the needed messages through peer pressure.

Maurice thought the Panthers would stagger out of the gate, hindered by injuries and malaise about the start of a long, demanding season.

He was wrong.

“It wasn’t the coaches yelling and screaming, so they brought a focus back to camp,” Maurice said. “I have full faith those are conversations they had in the locker room without the coaches there because we saw it on the ice.”

And, it has delivered them here to another best-of-7 series against a favored opponent.

Win it and they will have a shot at redemption against either the Dallas Stars or Edmonton Oilers, the two finalists in the Western Conference.

They believe with every fiber they can win this series and earn another shot at Cup glory.

“Even last year, I think we just believed in each other whether the media or people outside thought we were underdogs or whatnot,” Montour said. “But this year, I think, just the experience we had, we know our recipe to win hockey games, be at our best each and every night and that’s what we’re going to do.”