How Florida’s unlikely and exciting playoff run almost never happened at all

Matthew Tkachuk talks about the buzz around South Florida with the Florida Panthers and the Miami Heat both going on impressive playoff runs as underdogs in their respective sports with both teams in the conference finals.

A lot of things went wrong for the Florida Panthers in 2022-23.

Last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners entered this season with mighty expectations following an off-season of change that saw Matthew Tkachuk acquired for franchise cornerstones Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar and a new head coach hired in Paul Maurice.

But questions in net, struggles with consistency and key injuries to big-name players had the Panthers’ playoff hopes in peril early on. As of U.S. Thanksgiving 2022 (Nov. 24), the Panthers sat fifth in the Atlantic Division, their 10-8-2 record placing them outside of the playoff picture — typically, a strong early indicator of a team’s playoff fate. They weren’t faring much better come Christmastime, either.

It wasn’t until after the all-star break that Florida showed any real signs of warming up. Their 4-1 win over the Sharks on Feb. 9 brought the team its first three-game win streak of the season — albeit a disjointed one, as they’d defeated Boston on Jan. 28 right before their week off, and destroyed the Lightning in their first game back on Feb. 6 before winning in San Jose three nights later. The rest of February brought neither streaks nor skids, each loss met with a rebound win the following game.

A pair of three-game win sprees in the first half of March had the Panthers in position to pounce down the stretch, but that momentum was cut short later in the month when a four-game rut saw them fall from their perch and nearly dash any hopes of a post-season push at all.

And then they went on a streak, with a win over the Maple Leafs on Mar. 29 setting the stage for a wild sprint to the post-season that almost didn’t happen.

We all know how the regular season ultimately ended, with Florida finishing in the second wild card spot by a margin of a single point. And we all thought we knew how their post-season was going to end, too — down 3-1 against the historically good Boston Bruins, the fate of the 43-point underdogs from Florida appearing all but sealed.

And then, again, they went on a win streak.

The Panthers went on to win three straight games to edge the Bruins in overtime of Game 7, and then made quick work of the Toronto Maple Leafs with a 4-1 series win in Round 2. A third-round sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes now has them facing the Vegas Golden Knights with the Stanley Cup on the line thanks to absolutely sensational goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky and some of the most clutch performances we’ve ever seen from Matthew Tkachuk and the rest of this Panthers core.

They’ve lost just four games through three rounds of playoff hockey, and since being down 3-1 against Boston have won 11 of 12 matchups.

It’s a playoff run the likes of which we rarely see. And, if you go back to look at their journey down the stretch of the regular season into the second wild card spot in the East, it’s a playoff run we almost didn’t get to see at all.

Because while a lot of things went wrong for the Florida Panthers in 2022-23, a lot went very right when it mattered most.  

Here’s a look at those final games of the regular season — the wild moments, hard-fought wins, and of course a few lucky breaks, too — that put the Panthers in position to make a run.

Mar. 29: Lyon emerges a hero as Panthers edge Maple Leafs in overtime

While Toronto was in lineup-tweaking mode, its first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lighting having been all but locked in since mid-season, Florida was deep in desperation mode. The momentum they’d built up earlier in March had been halted by four straight losses that saw the Panthers outscored 21-10 and placing goalie questions front-of-mind as the team turned to Alex Lyon in place of Sergei Bobrovsky as the veteran dealt with an illness.

With their 36-31-7 record and 79 points to their name, the Panthers sat fourth in the Atlantic Division and three points behind Pittsburgh for the second wild-card spot with just eight games to play.

Looking back, this is the game that launched the streaking Panthers into the post-season thanks to the first of several show-stopping performances from Lyon and a Penguins loss one night earlier that opened the door for Florida to challenge. It also gave us a glimpse of what would become a familiar (and unimitable) recipe for success that would soon be all too familiar to their playoff foes: measure equal parts late-game goals and elite goaltending, and stir. (Of course, you can also call it the Paul Maurice-unleashed game, thanks to his outburst behind the bench.)

Lyon made 38 saves in the 3-2 victory, which saw Sam Bennett force overtime with a minute to go in regulation before Brandon Montour scored the OT winner just 1:47 into the extra frame.

And that was only the beginning of Lyon’s crucial run. The backup was back in the blue paint one night later in Montreal, backstopping the team to its second straight victory while Matthew Tkachuk posted a hat trick. Two nights after that, he earned a shutout against the Columbus Blue Jackets as Carter Verhaeghe one-upped Tkachuk with a four-goal night.

That win, which marked the third victory of what would be an electric six-game win streak for the Panthers, also saw Florida jump into the second wild card spot thanks in part to Pittsburgh’s loss to Boston that same day.

Apr. 4: Panthers’ 2-1 win over Buffalo proves crucial in race that goes down to the wire

Remember back on Oct. 15, when Tkachuk incited the ire of pretty much every Sabre in Buffalo as he hit the ice in his second-ever game as a Panther and first divisional battle in the Atlantic? Five months later, he was a familiar foe once again wreaking havoc — this time with a playoff berth on the line.

The fourth win of Florida’s late-season streak, a 2-1 victory over Buffalo in which Tkachuk scored the game-winner and Lyon made 39 saves, wound up being one of their most crucial head-to-heads by season’s end. At the time of puck drop, the 85-point Panthers were back outside the playoff picture after Pittsburgh jumped back in while Buffalo was six points behind the Islanders for the first wild card spot, five behind Pittsburgh, and four behind Florida in the race. 

Tkachuk’s winning marker would serve as his third of Florida’s six-game win streak — again, a sign of things to come in the playoffs — while the Sabres would one game later launch a win streak of their own. Following their loss to Florida, Buffalo went on to win five of their final six games, finishing behind Florida for that second wild-card spot by… just one single point.

Apr. 10: Panthers pick up single point against Maple Leafs

Florida’s win streak started and ended with the Maple Leafs, but their loss to Toronto in the second-last game of the season still felt like a win because of, yes, that one single point earned by pushing the game to overtime.

A seventh straight win would have clinched the Panthers a playoff spot, thanks to the Islanders’ loss to the Capitals earlier that same day. (Florida led New York by one point in the wild-card race and sat two ahead of Pittsburgh, who had one game in-hand at the time in the race for WC1.)

They’d have to wait to learn their playoff fate, but thanks to Montour’s game-tying goal midway through the third period — and Lyon’s strong 23-save performance to keep Florida in it despite their lack of offence — Florida would find themselves in need of an assist.

April 11: Penguins’ unlikely loss to Blackhawks clinches Panthers’ playoff berth

With just two days left in the regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were staring down the very real possibility that their run of 16 straight post-season berths would be coming to an end. And yet, they were still very much in control thanks to an extra game in hand over both the Islanders and Panthers. With 90 points, they needed to defeat two of the worst teams in the league — the Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets — starting with a matchup against Chicago that Blackhawks brass didn’t exactly want to win considering the lottery odds at stake.

But a late-game collapse, which saw Chicago score two goals in 26 seconds in the third period, ultimately lost Pittsburgh the game and gifted Florida its hard-fought playoff berth, the impact of this contest reverberating across divisional lines and around the whole league.

This loss wasn’t quite the final nail in the coffin of Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes, but it handed the hammer to the New York Islanders — who else!? — who wielded it one night later with a victory over Montreal, officially eliminating Pittsburgh and booking their own ticket to the playoffs.

For the Blackhawks, it was a win that almost felt like a loss at the time — those two points left Chicago no longer in possession of the best lottery odds in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes. (Of course, we all know now things worked out just fine for Chicago come lottery night.)

The Panthers’ season-finale loss to the Carolina Hurricanes ultimately decided their first-round fate, securing Florida’s place in the second wild-card spot and catching them a date with the Boston Bruins.

And the rest, as they say… is playoff history.

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