When it comes to the Florida Panthers‘ magical run to the Stanley Cup Final, there’s no rest-versus-rust debate taking place between rounds.
When an eighth-seed makes it to the Stanley Cup Final and leaves a trail of high-end teams in your wake, you play when the games are scheduled and do what you can to prepare for the next series, whether it ends up being against the Vegas Golden Knights or the Dallas Stars.
“When you’ve played so much hockey to this point, you’ve got to take advantage of every moment to rest, recover and regenerate,” Panthers forward Sam Reinhart told reporters in Florida. “Obviously you get some bumps and bruises and guys banged up along the way and you take a moment like this to really get back on track and hit the ground running when the next series starts.”
Given the way the Panthers had to battle just to get into the playoffs, you can understand why they’ve been comfortable in the pressure cooker environment.
They’ve been battle hardened along the way, overcoming a nine-point deficit to squeeze into the postseason by finishing one point ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins — who lost to the Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets in their final two games.
“When you go through a run like this, there are a number of big moments you kind of look back on,” said Reinhart. “As guys start to step up, different guys in certain situations, you just get that confidence and belief in one another that someone is going to find a play or do something to keep us going in the right direction.
“A lot of that belief in ourselves, that just grows and grows and it’s a nice thing to see.”
Some observers will point to the Panthers as the latest example that playing well throughout the regular season doesn’t really matter all that much, you simply need to get hot at the right time. But that ignores an important part of this underdog story.
“It’s a tough thing to turn on,” said Reinhart, who has seven goals and 11 points in 16 playoff games this spring. “We were kind of in it for so many months and just kind of kept that going. That momentum builds and builds.”
Reinhart, who was dealt to the Panthers from the Buffalo Sabres on the second day of the 2021 NHL Draft, got his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring when the Presidents’ Trophy winners defeated the Washington Capitals to advance to the second round, only to be swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That prompted a change behind the bench — with Paul Maurice replacing Andrew Brunette — and a blockbuster deal made by general manager Bill Zito that brought in Matthew Tkachuk, but shipped out Hart Trophy finalist Jonathan Huberdeau and top-pairing blue-liner MacKenzie Weegar.
The bumps in the road were prevalent but that’s what makes runs like this even more enjoyable.
“We’ve had so much fun getting here, it’s fun coming to the rink right now. We’re just having a blast,” Panthers forward Carter Verhaeghe told reporters. “Hockey-wise, we struggled this year. Coming to the rink, you would have hope, then you would have doubt. You would have hope and then, it was kind of a roller-coaster ride coming to the rink every day.
“That’s what kind of prepared us for the playoffs: having the highs and lows. The change in momentum (happens) so fast. It’s been like that all year. So that’s helped us.”
Maurice is back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2002, when the Carolina Hurricanes fell in five games to the Detroit Red Wings, and he recognizes how rare these opportunities to compete for hockey’s Holy Grail can be.
“I haven’t thought about it much, it was a while ago. The league was completely different. The 2002 Red Wing team had 10 Hall of Famers on it. They were pretty good,” Maurice told reporters. “That’s a different way of looking at it and I’m very mindful of (how difficult it is) and I can appreciate that. Even to get to a conference final. If you look at the Final Four in college basketball, what an enormous deal that is. It’s less played (up) in hockey.
“The big difference is the perspective of it is that it truly does allow you to enjoy it more, that it’s okay (to enjoy it) on your off days. Game days are a little different, it’s wired. Just to be happy about your day-to-day. … We’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow and be completely present today. Maybe it’s just that I’m older. A lot older. But I enjoy it completely differently this time.”
UPDATING THE CONN SMYTHE RANKINGS
Starting with the caveat this list is merely the current thoughts, considering the Western Conference Final has yet to be completed, but the Stanley Cup will be underway by the time my next Sunday column runs, so we’ll simply do our best here and adjust accordingly — once these playoffs are over.
No. 5 — Adin Hill, Vegas Golden Knights
After working his way back from a late-season injury, Hill watched Laurent Brossoit start the first eight games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before he left Game 3 against the Edmonton Oilers with a lower-body injury. Since that time, Hill has been excellent, putting together a record of 6-3 with a 2.30 goals-against average (fourth best in the playoffs) and .932 save percentage (second best in the playoffs), with one shutout, while sitting fourth in goals saved above expected (5.3, according to MoneyPuck). Acquired from the San Jose Sharks for a 2024 fourth-round pick last August, Hill has proven to be much more than just a valuable insurance policy.
No. 4 — Roope Hintz, Dallas Stars
He’s been the one driving play for the Stars throughout these playoffs, using his blazing speed to help him produce 10 goals and 24 points in 18 games to lead all players to date. While frequent linemate Jason Robertson has regained his scoring touch (seven goals, 18 points in 18 games), Joe Pavelski has continued to come through in big moments (nine goals, 14 points in 13 games) and Miro Heiskanen plays the role of the one-man zone exit and minute muncher on the back end, it’s Hintz who has been driving this bus.
No. 3 — Jack Eichel, Vegas Golden Knights
In most years, the second overall pick in 2015 would be sitting comfortably in the top spot — and he still might get there depending on how the rest of the Western Conference Final goes — but Eichel has been doing an exceptional job in his first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in his eighth NHL season. With a sharp assist in Game 5, Eichel is up to six goals and 18 points in 16 games, and he’s been a two-way force on the top line with Ivan Barbashev (a tremendous trade deadline addition) and Jonathan Marchessault (who is heating up at a perfect time).
There was much consternation after Eichel had zero points and was on the ice for three goals against in the first game of the playoffs in a 5-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, but it’s important to remember he did have nine shot attempts in that game, so he was around the puck a lot. Since that time, he’s continued to elevate his game and is one win away from an opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup.
No. 1B — Matthew Tkachuk, Florida Panthers
This is not a cop-out, it’s simply not fair to Tkachuk to list him as No. 2, though it’s entirely possible that is where he ends up when the ballots are counted at the end of the Stanley Cup Final. The first-year Panthers forward has been a clutch performer throughout the playoffs and no more so than in the Eastern Conference Final where he scored three game-winning goals (one with seconds to go in the fourth overtime, one early in the first overtime and then one with 4.9 seconds to go in regulation) and had the primary assist on Sam Reinhart’s GWG in Game 3 for good measure as the Panthers secured a four-game sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Tkachuk hasn’t just been scoring goals (nine, including four game-winners) and racking up points (21, second only to Hintz) either, he’s been crashing the crease, playing a physical game and getting under the skin of his opponents with regularity. He’s also enjoying every minute of the journey and doing his part to promote the sport, like he did during the NBA pre-game show on TNT, when he joined Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson on the set prior to Game 6 between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics. The Hart Trophy finalist is soaking up the spotlight and also delivering the goods as the Panthers have knocked off three powerhouse teams in putting together a 12-4 record so far.
No. 1A — Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers
His story is remarkable, as a $10-million goalie who lost his starting job to both Spencer Knight and Alex Lyon at various points this season. But a well-rested and highly-motivated Bobrovsky has reverted to the form that helped him win the Vezina Trophy on two separate occasions (2013, 2017) as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The numbers themselves are exceptional (11-2 record, 2.21 goals-against average, .935 save percentage in 14 appearances and 13 starts and 19.7 goals saved above expected, according to MoneyPuck) but it’s the confidence Bobrovsky has instilled in his teammates that is equally impressive. Bobrovsky surrendered only six goals in the four-game sweep of the Hurricanes, a number that is even more impressive when you consider the four bonus periods in Game 1 and the quick OT ending in Game 2.
Bobrovsky’s ability to enjoy the journey — despite the various ups and downs — and express his gratitude to be given the opportunity to reclaim the top spot has been another impressive part of the narrative. The 34-year-old understands how tough it is to get to this point, and he will be well-rested by the time the Stanley Cup Final begins next Saturday.
REVISITING THE AHO OFFER SHEET
With the Hurricanes eliminated in four incredibly tight games by the Panthers, attention has turned to what figures to be a very interesting offseason for general manager Don Waddell, who has a number of important decisions to make on his roster.
In addition to the expiring contracts in 2023, inking a new deal for franchise centre Sebastian Aho has to be one of the top priorities.
It feels like only yesterday that Aho signed an offer sheet with the Montreal Canadiens in the summer of 2019, one that included an $11.3 million signing bonus and carried an AAV of $8.64 million.
There was plenty of debate at the time over why Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin only offered five years in the deal, especially when you consider Aho was just 22 years old and heading toward his prime years.
It was the front-loaded nature of the deal (with more than $21 million of the total to be paid out within the first 365 days due to the two massive bonuses) that Bergevin expected might give Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon pause.
Although it didn’t work out for the Canadiens when the Hurricanes smartly chose to match the offer sheet, it also means Aho could become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2024, when he’s 27 years old, provided an extension is not on the horizon.
Obviously, the Hurricanes will do everything in their power to keep Aho in the fold, like they did for Andrei Svechnikov, who signed an eight-year deal worth $62 million ($7.75 million AAV).
Aho plays centre and in all situations, so he’ll be looking for a raise, but where will the AAV land? North of $9 million seems like a certainty, but will it exceed $10 million? What about the term? Will it be another five-year deal or might it be a max deal spanning eight seasons that brings the AAV down slightly, given his age at the end of it?
Only the Hurricanes braintrust knows for sure and one would expect negotiations to begin in earnest this summer.
For the time being, let’s explore what Aho has done during the first four seasons of the contract.
Since coming out of his entry-level contract, Aho has continued to be a consistent point producer, eclipsing 36 goals in three seasons and recording 24 in 56 games during the COVID-shortened campaign of 2021.
His career-high 38 goals came during the 2019-20 season that was also shortened because of the global pandemic, so a 40-goal outburst could still be coming.
Aho has produced at nearly a point-per-game rate (271 points in 278 games) over the past four seasons and there’s nothing to suggest he’ll be slowing down anytime soon.
During those four seasons, the Hurricanes advanced to one Eastern Conference Final and were eliminated in the second round on three other occasions but it wasn’t for a lack of production from Aho, who has 23 goals and 58 points in 63 postseason games, including 18 goals and 46 points in 48 games during the past four seasons).
Following the Hurricanes exit meetings late last week, Aho spoke with reporters in Raleigh, and his future was a natural topic of conversation. The phrasing of the question was direct: this year, you’re eligible for a contract extension, is that something you want to happen as quickly as possible?
“Yeah, I mean, I’d like to be here, right?” said Aho. “We’ll see. I haven’t thought about it at all. I’ll probably give you a better answer a little later.”
Aho, chosen in the second round (35th overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft, is an outstanding playmaker with great vision, but he’s also got strong finishing ability and goes to the high-traffic areas and plays hard.
He’s the type of franchise cornerstone that doesn’t come around very often, so expect the two sides to find common ground and get an extension done.
When Stars captain Jamie Benn didn’t speak to reporters after his Game 3 ejection for a cross-check on Golden Knights captain Mark Stone, it caused a bit of an uproar, both in the media community and on various social media platforms.
There are generally two schools of thought here and for the sake of context, so let’s get into them.
There are many fans, players and team executives who clearly fall in the “leave him alone, what do you expect him to say?” category.
Most reporters believe Benn needs to show accountability in that moment and tell his side of the story.
If the play had happened in the latter stages of the game, there is an argument to be made for waiting until the morning after, so the player could have some additional time to process his thoughts.
But even then, it would still serve Benn well to take a question or two and share his thoughts on what has taken place.
Since the ejection occurred less than two minutes into the contest, Benn had several hours to collect himself before his interview would have occurred.
For the record, this isn’t about trying to make a player feel uncomfortable or to put him under the equivalent of an interrogation lamp.
Everyone knows the player in question probably feels bad about what transpired, that he lost his cool momentarily and did something he most likely regrets.
But a reporter can’t make that assumption and only Benn can provide clarity for what was going through his mind at the time and how he saw things unfold in real time.
When Benn doesn’t speak until the following day, it means that other players are forced to speak for him and that also puts them in an unfair position.
That Benn is the captain and put his teammates in quite a predicament with his major and ejection only compounds the issue.
No matter what was said or when the interview happened, Benn will ultimately be judged by his actions on the ice and now he’ll have an opportunity to return to the series with his team’s season on the line.