Fresh-look Panthers build love after Stanley Cup heartbreak

Florida Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk said new players are starting to find their roles with the team. File Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI
1 of 5 | Florida Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk said new players are starting to find their roles with the team. File Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo

SUNRISE, Fla., Oct. 20 (UPI) -- Fans roared at Amerant Bank Arena as a spotlight revealed a banner honoring the Florida Panthers for their 2022 Eastern Conference title, but goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky wasn't interested in reminiscing.

His eyelids weren't among the thousands watching a highlight video, replaying the scenes of the Panthers' improbable run last season on the central jumbotron, with its mammoth speakers echoing cheers stuck in time.


The second-place banner reminded players of their crushed title dreams and a postseason ended by the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final.

Bobrovsky and the Panthers are ready to move on.

"I'm not watching the videos much," Bobrovsky said Thursday, after the Panthers beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 in Sunrise, Fla. "I enjoy the opportunity of playing in the NHL. I'm enjoying the moment I'm in right now.


"The past is the past. It's just that. It's a new opportunity for us. It was a great run, but our goal wasn't achieved. We have to push a little bit more. This season we have a new opportunity."

Panthers players had the same mindset during the home opener, which drew nearly 20,000 fans, many of whom chanted "We Want Florida" throughout the game.

The mantra was a jab to the Maple Leafs, whose fans used the phrase during the 2022 postseason, intimating that the wild-card Panthers would be an easy playoff foe -- before the underdogs upset their team.

"I was really looking forward to this one all summer -- since the final," Panthers All-Star winger Matthew Tkachuk said. "It was really good to get back and see our fans again.

"It felt very similar to a playoff-type win that we had last spring, especially against these guys. It felt good, especially against a team ahead of us in the standings."

The Panthers have crawled to a slow start this season, dropping their first two games to the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets on the road. They rebounded with a 4-3 win over the New Jersey Devils on Monday in Newark and will try for a third-consecutive win Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks in Sunrise.


"It's a long process," Bobrovsky said. "It's a long season. You try to build confidence in your game, build the trust and chemistry with teammates and build some love from the locker room to support each other.

"We are coming together. The wins definitely help in that process."

Part of their early struggles were tied to playing without key members of their lineup -- either due to injuries or off-season departures.

Defensemen Marc Staal and, Radko Gudas, forwards Anthony Duclair, Eric Staal, Patric Hornqvist, Givani Smith and Colin White and goaltender Alex Lyon are among those no longer with the team.

The Panthers started the season without defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour, who are expected to be out until December because of shoulder injuries. Center Sam Bennett will miss the early part of the season because of a lower-body injury, but could return sooner than Ekblad and Montour.

"We just started our season [against] four playoff teams," Panthers head coach Paul Maurice said. "We had to scratch and claw and it wasn't perfect.

"It's not going to look pretty, but the understanding and acceptance by [player] leadership that you can't be casually weighing into the first part of the season is critical."


Maurice and team leaders like Tkachuk are tasked with rebinding the locker room. The coach, who previously noted it took him two full months to recover from the emotional postseason loss, said he and the new players now have increased comfort.

Two of the new additions -- forward Kevin Stenlund and Oliver Ekman-Larsson -- netted their first goals in Panthers uniforms against the Maple Leafs. Forward Evan Rodrigues and defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Niko Mikkola are among other new players.

"I am just trying to build every day and get some more offense as it goes on," Stenlund said when asked about his first goal. "Obviously, it went well. It's great to get the confidence [from coaching staff]. It's just fun to play here."

The shine from an actively bleeding wound under Stenlund's left eye might be evidence that he'll fit in sooner than later with his new teammates.

Maurice said Panthers players like to celebrate the aggression and defensive puck blocking as much as big hits. That camaraderie could be seen along the Panthers bench during their first home game.

The Panthers scraped their way through last postseason, earning recognition as one of the NHL's most clutch teams. They are 10-0 in overtime playoff games since 2021. They are playing tight matches again this season, with their first four contests decided by two goals or less.


Maurice said effort and desperation are key components of the Panthers' strategy, adding that his team is not interested in aesthetically pleasing victories.

"It is so hard to make the playoffs," Maurice said. "We proved that last year. The season takes its own path on you.

"We play six of our first eight against teams that made the playoffs last year. You can get yourself in a world of trouble. There is desperation in our game. It wasn't pretty again [against the Maple Leafs], but we have no interest in playing a pretty game.

"We've kinda gotten good at ugly."

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