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SUNRISE, Fla. -- The ice was flooded with plastic rats and, for some reason, what appeared to be a faux wedge of cheese. The building was loud -- vibrating, really -- as the cheers suffused Amerant Bank Arena, as they turned from a “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!” chant into “We want the Cup!”

The Florida Panthers fans were celebrating. Their team had just beaten the New York Rangers 2-1 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Saturday, earning them entry into the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight season.

It was a party.

But behind the scenes, in the dressing room, there was another feeling. Of joy, sure, but also of seriousness. Of steadiness. Of happiness, tempered.

Because although the Panthers have accomplished a lot, winning the Prince of Wales Trophy as Eastern Conference champions, becoming the first team since the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins to return to the Final after losing in it the season before, vanquishing the Presidents’ Trophy winner (again), there was a sense that, to them, this wasn’t what they wanted to celebrate.

Not yet.

“I think last year we believed, but we were also happy to be there,” forward Sam Bennett said. “This year it’s kind of all business. We have one goal in mind and that’s it. We’re not going to be satisfied until we accomplish that.”

The Stanley Cup.

Paul Maurice couldn’t quite put his finger on the right word to describe the contrast. The disbelief and chaos, the excitement and fervor that gripped the postgame locker room after the Panthers swept the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final last season.

This was not that.

“The energy level postgame was through the roof,” Maurice said of last season. “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 when the buzzer went. It was excitement, and rightfully so. They worked really hard to win.”

NYR@FLA, ECF Gm6: Panthers defeat Rangers for Eastern Conference Final win

Part of that came from the makeup of the team, the way in which the Panthers emerged from making the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the skin of their teeth to vanquishing a Boston Bruins team coming off a historically good regular season to running over the Toronto Maple Leafs and Hurricanes in a combined nine games last season.

It came from no one believing and an us-against-the-world mentality and the cheek of Matthew Tkachuk.

This season's Panthers have grown up, though, meeting expectations rather than defying them.

“They’re more even-keeled than last year’s team,” Maurice said. “But we needed that last year. We needed them not to be even-keeled and be wired and jacked and celebratory. It was how we did get there. This is, and it’s personality based, they came back to camp with an eye on where they wanted to go and we’ve seen that all year.”

It was an eye firmly planted on the Cup Final, on a chance to win a ring, on doing everything they could, and more, to get back to where they already knew they could get. Which is why Saturday’s postgame celebration was a grown-up reaction, a been there before reaction, a sense that, yes, the Prince of Wales Trophy is nice, but it’s not what the Panthers were ultimately looking to get out of the 2023-24 season.

That trophy is yet to be won.

As goalie Sergei Bobrovsky put it: “The job is not done. We made just a step.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Tkachuk, born of a single-minded sense of purpose that the team has had this season.

“We are not done yet,” he said. “We are very happy with the way this playoffs has gone for us, winning the first three, but it’s a different feeling this year, for sure.”

Which is not to say that what the Panthers have accomplished to this point should not be celebrated by the team, by management, by their fans. After all, this is not really something that happens.

Since the NHL’s expansion era began in 1967-68, only five other teams had done what the Panthers have done this season, making it back to the Final after losing in it the previous season.

Only two have won.

The 2009 Penguins. The 1984 Edmonton Oilers.

That’s it.

The Panthers will aim to make that duo a trio when they face either the Oilers or Dallas Stars in the Final, which will begin with Game 1 on June 8. It’s what they’ve been working toward since, essentially, the moment they were eliminated in Game 5 by the Vegas Golden Knights 354 days ago.

“I think it just comes down to our heart and our will,” Bennett said. “We want it bad, and it’s one thing to say you want it and to actually go out there and prove that every single night, how hard you’re going to work is a different story. We want it bad.”

They want the Stanley Cup, the Cup they couldn’t quite win last season. So Saturday was important, necessary, a celebration of the work they’ve put in, the days they’ve logged in the gym, the practices and skates and workouts, every day and every minute focused on this.

It was also serious, businesslike. There is more work to be done.

“We expected to be back here,” Tkachuk said. “Obviously, nothing’s guaranteed, but we were expecting this, the way we’ve been working, the way we’ve been dialed in and details. ... We’re very proud to be here, we’re very happy, but the job’s not finished.”

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