Barkov receives Cup from Bettman

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Vincent Viola stood at center ice, surrounded by the celebration after the Florida Panthers won the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 30 NHL seasons.

The owner said he wasn’t as much proud as he was humbled by their 2-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final at Amerant Bank Arena on Monday, because he knew how hard everyone had worked, everyone from the skate sharpeners to the equipment managers to ...

“Our dentists,” Viola said, smiling as he spotted team dentist Martin Robins, who has been with the Panthers since they joined the NHL as an expansion team in 1993-94.

Robins walked up, hugged Viola and planted a big, fat kiss on his cheek.

“This man made my dream come true,” Robins said.

“We all did,” Viola said. “Now, what ring size do you take?”

“Whatever size you want to make,” Robins said. “I’m going to make it fit.”

FLA owner and dentist

Think about what went into this. Think about all the blood, sweat and teeth.

The Panthers made the Cup Final in 1995-96, their third season, but were swept by the Colorado Avalanche. Then they made the Stanley Cup Playoffs only four times over the next 22 seasons and didn’t win a round.

They couldn’t fill the lower bowl at times, let alone the building, despite ticket giveaways and gimmicky promotions.

But then Viola bought the team in 2013 and eventually built it into a first-class organization.

The Panthers have made the playoffs for five straight seasons. Over the past three, they have won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, made the Cup Final and won the Cup, filling the stands with roaring fans.

They just opened a state-of-the-art practice facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, too.

“This is a hockey town,” said general manager Bill Zito, his eyes red with tears, repeating himself for emphasis. “This is a hockey town.”

Bill Zito lifts Cup 62424

Zito took over as GM in 2020 and helped Florida become championship caliber.

When the Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2021-22, they led the NHL in goals (337) but tied for 20th in goals against (242). They defeated the Washington Capitals in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round, winning a playoff series for the first time since 1996, but got swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.

Afterward, they made bold moves to become more of a playoff-style team. Most notably, they hired veteran coach Paul Maurice, even though Andrew Brunette had been a finalist for coach of the year, and they acquired forward Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames in a trade that included forward Jonathan Huberdeau, their all-time leading scorer.

The Panthers went on an epic playoff run last season before losing to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Cup Final, badly bruised and battered. Now they have become the first team since the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins to win the Cup the season after losing in the Final.

“To be there last year and get kind of dismantled the way we did against a much better team, the amount we learned, the amount we rebounded to get back here, is incredible,” forward Sam Reinhart said.

After defeating the Lightning in five games, the Boston Bruins in six and the New York Rangers in six in the first three rounds of the playoffs this season, the Panthers showed their mettle in an incredible Cup Final. They took a 3-0 series lead, outscoring the Oilers 11-4. Then the Oilers came back to tie the series 3-3, outscoring them 18-5.

The Panthers were in danger of joining the 1942 Detroit Red Wings, the only team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead and lose the Cup Final. But they didn’t choke. They rose to the occasion in Game 7, and they did it their way, winning a one-goal game with defense and grit.

“It was supposed to be seven games,” defenseman Gustav Forsling said. “We’re doing it the hard way. That’s how it was supposed to be, at home, in front of our family and friends and fans. It was meant to be.”

Two sequences summed it up:

The first sequence came with a little more than seven minutes left in the third period, Florida protecting a 2-1 lead. The puck came to Oilers captain Connor McDavid, the playoffs leading scorer and winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs most valuable player. McDavid got it to his forehand in front of the net, but Forsling got his stick on it.

“I turn around,” Forsling said. “I see McDavid almost putting it in. I just got a stick there, and thank God, I got a piece of it.”

The puck went to Oilers forward Zach Hyman, the playoffs leading goal-scorer. He had an awkward backhand chance, but goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, lying on his stomach, made a backhand glove save.

“It’s typical us,” forward Carter Verhaeghe said, losing his voice amid the celebration. “We were grinding and shut it down. I can’t say enough about us. We just grind ’em.”

The second sequence came in the final seconds. The puck went into the corner to the left of Bobrovsky as the clock counted down. As the players scratched and clawed, the puck didn’t move. The fans roared to the final horn.

“I got the puck and I just figure, ‘This puck is not leaving this corner,’” Forsling said. “That’s all I could think about.”

The Panthers have a lot of work to do this offseason. They have 11 players who can become unrestricted free agents July 1. But Florida is no longer a place no one wants to play. Total opposite.

“This is unbelievable,” said Reinhart, one of the pending UFAs. “I mean, it changes every year. I don’t want to leave. I want to be here. This is unbelievable. This is a great feeling. Best place in the League to play, in our opinion.”

Who would want to be anywhere else right now?

“Probably in a few days, it’s going to be the greatest party that’s probably happened down here in South Florida,” Tkachuk said. “I cannot wait.”