SUNRISE — With time bleeding off the clock near the end of regulation in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals and the game between the Hurricanes and Panthers tied, Matthew Tkachuk knew exactly what he had to do.
The Panthers left wing held onto the puck for dear life on the power play as he pushed towards the slot and wired a wrist shot on net.
Bang. It was in – with 4.9 seconds left.
For the third time in the four-game sweep, Tkachuk scored the game-winning goal. And this time, he sent the Florida Panthers to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1996.
“I wouldn’t say it was easy, but not too many guys have the patience he had at the end,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “It was so loud, there was so much excitement, it was great.”
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Seconds later, when the buzzer sounded to mark their 4-3 against the Carolina Hurricanes, Panthers skaters mobbed goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky as rubber rats soared in from the crowd.
For the first time in 27 years, they made it to the mountain top.
The Panthers — the eighth seed entering the playoffs — had to overcome a 3-1 deficit to the record-breaking Boston Bruins before handing decisive series losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Hurricanes.
And it had everything to do with the man the entire team was rushing to the crease to congratulate.
Dating back to the start of the second round, Bobrovsky allowed two or fewer goals in all but one game and picked up wins in eight of nine contests. He sealed the deal in Game 4 with a 36-save performance. “You can’t say enough good things about him,” Ryan Lomberg said. “The story all playoff run long has been how hard we work, how dedicated he is, and for us in this locker room, there is no surprise that he’s getting the payoff that he is.”
Their Eastern Conference finals win over Carolina was the first series win they have gotten to celebrate on home ice since moving from Miami to Sunrise in 1998. The Panthers will face the winner of the Western Conference Final between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Dallas Stars. Vegas has a 3-0 series lead with a chance to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night.
No matter which of the two teams Florida faces, the outlook is the same. They are, once again, the eighth-seeded underdog slated to be pinned against a team that finished the regular season with over 100 points.
“The people in this area support and believe in us, but there are not many people out there, still, who do,” Tkachuk said. “We know that we’ve played some really good teams so far in these playoffs, but we know that the next team is going to be unbelievable as well. More points, more wins, more whatever.” So we have that similar feeling of being the underdog and trying to prove people wrong again.”
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Florida Panthers headed for Stanley Cup Finals after sweeping Carolina