SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Matthew Tkachuk delivered for Florida, again. Sergei Bobrovsky denied Carolina, again.
The wait is over: After 27 years, the Florida Panthers — a hockey punchline no more — are again going to play for the game’s grandest prize.
Tkachuk got his second goal of the game with 4.9 seconds left, lifting the Panthers past the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 and into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 after sweeping the Eastern Conference final.
The Panthers will play either Vegas or Dallas for the Stanley Cup starting sometime next week; Vegas currently leads the Western Conference title series 3-0.
“This was pure joy,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.
Bobrovsky stopped 36 shots to cap his stellar series — four games, four one-goal wins, three of them basically in sudden death, a .966 save percentage after stopping 174 of the 180 shots he faced. The first two wins were in overtime, and this one may as well have been.
The Panthers scored 10 goals in the series, and Bobrovsky ensured those were all they needed. They were the No. 8 seed, the last team in, the longest of long shots — which is consistent with their history, after not winning a single playoff series in 26 years, a drought that ended last season.
And now, beasts of the East. Tkachuk arrived last summer saying he wanted to bring Florida a Cup. He's four wins away.
“It’s amazing,” Bobrovsky said. “We showed the resilience ... and we’re lucky to have Chucky on our side. He knows how to score big goals.”
NHL Senior Vice President Brian Jennings was the one tasked with presenting the Prince of Wales Trophy. After some photos, Aleksander Barkov — the captain who had two assists, one of them on the game-winner — grabbed it, and skated it away. Some teams touch it. Some don’t. A few of the Panthers did, but Barkov didn’t pass it around.
That’ll wait for the big prize.
“It's hard to explain right now. Everything just happened so quick,” Barkov said. “It means a lot. It definitely does. ... It hasn't been easy and nobody said it's going to be easy.”
Added Tkachuk: “We earned that thing, and definitely didn't do it the easy way. We earned it.”
Ryan Lomberg and Anthony Duclair had the other goals for Florida, which swept a series for the first time in franchise history.
Jordan Staal — his brothers Eric and Marc play for the Panthers — took a tripping penalty with 57 seconds left in regulation, setting up the power-play that Tkachuk finished off after getting into the slot and beating Frederik Andersen to set off a wild celebration.
“Eastern Conference champions,” Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “It's really cool. No doubt about it. But you know, at the end of the day, we have our eyes on something different.”
Toy rats — the Panthers' tradition, a nod to the unwanted locker room guests from Florida's old arena in 1996 — sailed down from the stands, and the goal needed to survive an official review. But the rats were picked up, the goal was deemed good, and 27 years of waiting was officially over 4.9 seconds later.
Jesper Fast seemed like he might have saved the season for Carolina, getting a tying goal with 3:22 left in regulation. Paul Stastny and Teuvo Teravainen had the first two goals of the night for the Hurricanes, while Brady Skjei and Jordan Martinook each had two assists. Andersen stopped 21 shots.
“Everyone’s going to say, ‘You got swept.’ That’s not what happened,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "I watched the game. I'm there. I'm cutting the games. We're in the game. We didn't lose four games. We got beat, but we were right there. This could have went the other way. It could have been four games the other way.”
That wasn't sour grapes. He was right. A bounce here, a bounce there, a Bobrovsky not here, a Bobrovsky not there, and this series could have gone much differently.
But Bob was his best. Tkachuk was clutch, over and over. And Florida is as close to a Cup as it has ever been; the Panthers were swept by Colorado in the 1996 final.
Towels waved, strobe lights flashed, and the fans wasted no time letting the Panthers know that they were ready to a clincher.
Tkachuk made it 2-0 on the power play midway through the first. Carolina — a 113-point, division-championship-winning team in the regular season — made it 2-1 later in the first on Stastny's goal, and Teravainen tied it early in the second.
Lomberg's goal midway through the second gave Florida the lead again. It stayed that way until Fast got the equalizer with 3:22 left, and then Tkachuk finished it off — getting the Panthers to the title round in his first season.
“It's been unbelievable since July since I got here,” Tkachuk said. “And hopefully we can cap off this amazing year.”
AROUND THE RINK
Panthers general manager Bill Zito was announced earlier Wednesday as a finalist for NHL GM of the year. ... Tkachuk’s two goals gave him 21 points in the playoffs — extending his Florida single-season postseason record, which was 17 by Dave Lowry in 1996. ... Slavin was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game after Bennett's hit, with what the Hurricanes said was “an upper-body injury.” Slavin wobbled as he tried to get to his feet. ... Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel — who has also been a regular at Miami Heat games during their playoff run this spring — banged the drum before the game. When done, without a mic to drop, he simply dropped the mallet instead.
Tkachuk's goal midway through the opening period put Florida up 2-0 — and marked the first time, in nearly 14 periods of play to that point, that a team had a two-goal lead in this series. Every bit of action came with the score tied or someone up by one in the first 272 minutes (including all the overtimes) of the series.
AP NHL Playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press