Scotty Bowman has been watching the Florida Panthers with wide eyes, like the rest of the hockey world, and the winningest coach in NHL history thinks he might have a grip on their stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final.
“This is a team of destiny,” Bowman said Thursday. “To have been on the brink of elimination in the first round, to have won eight times in a row on the road, to have won six straight games in overtime, to be winning these close games … that shows you something.”
There’s much hockey to be played before the Panthers would take the Stanley Cup for a victory lap, Florida having knocked on the door in 1996, their third season, before being swept in a four-game Final by the Colorado Avalanche.
But the Panthers’ 11-1 charge since April 26 has been remarkable, even sensational, considering they were the Eastern Conference’s second wild card into the playoffs, and the team with the fewest points of any of the 16 postseason qualifiers.
The Panthers staved off elimination in three consecutive first-round games against the Boston Bruins, the NHL’s best-regular season team. Down 3-1, Florida defeated the Presidents’ Trophy winners in overtime in Game 5, won Game 6 back home, then in Boston stunned the Bruins in overtime in Game 7.
“We want Florida!” happily chanted fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had eliminated the Tampa Bay Lighting in six games in the first round for Toronto’s first series victory since 2004. The playoff road to better things seemed smoother to Leaf Nation, if not the team itself, with rival Boston shockingly eliminated.
Well, Florida they got, and along with it a five-game elimination against a team that seemed to draw tremendous energy from its win against Boston.
By now the Panthers were playing with house money, to coin a casino phrase. And then came their sweep of Carolina, dusting the Hurricanes with four one-goal victories, Game 1 ended on Matthew Tkachuk‘s winner with 13 seconds remaining in the fourth overtime period.
The Panthers have won all six of their overtime games this postseason. They could equal or establish the NHL record for consecutive road victories; Florida is two behind the 10 of the 2012 Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings. The Panthers are the fourth team to enter the Stanley Cup Final after winning 11 of its last 12 in a postseason, following the Montreal Canadiens in 1993, Chicago Blackhawks in 1992 and Edmonton Oilers in 1987 and 1983.
Three times since the NHL went to a four-round, best-of-7 playoff format in 1986-87 has a team rallied from a 3-1 first-round deficit to push into the second round and ultimately win the Stanley Cup:
• The 1989-90 Oilers trailed the Winnipeg Jets before winning three straight, then went on to sweep the Kings, beat the Blackhawks in six games and then the Bruins in a five-game Final.
• The 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins faced elimination three times against the Washington Capitals, then defeated the New York Rangers in six games and swept first the Bruins, then the Blackhawks to win the Cup.
• The 2013-14 Kings clawed back from down 3-1 in the first round against the San Jose Sharks to advance, then beat the Anaheim Ducks and Blackhawks in seven games each before their five-game victory against the Rangers in the Final.
Bowman coached the 1991-92 Penguins and, a decade later, the 2001-02 Red Wings, two of his NHL-record nine Stanley Cup champions.
The Penguins opened with two losses in Washington, won Game 3 at home, then were swamped 7-2 in Game 4, setting the stage for three straight wins, Games 5 and 7 on the road.
The Red Wings dropped the first two at home to the Canucks, then won four straight, three of them in Vancouver.
But Bowman sees no comparison to either of those champions, or any other team for that matter, when he considers the Panthers.
“It’s hard to fathom, all the road games they’re winning, to be so close to elimination in the first round,” he said.
The tremendous work of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, Bowman says, has the Panthers playing fearless hockey. Since skating into the Florida net late in the third period of Game 3 against the Bruins, in relief of Alex Lyon, Bobrovsky has been brilliant: 11-2 with a 2.21 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and one shutout.
“Florida isn’t wondering, ‘How do we protect the goalie?’ because he’s been protecting them,” Bowman said. “Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy twice with Columbus (2013, 2017), but he’s had his struggles since signing with Panthers (in 2019). But he’s in such a zone now. The players must have so much confidence just for what he’s done for himself.”
Nine of the Panthers’ 12 victories have been by a single goal, another illustration of the ice water in Bobrovsky’s veins.
“When Carolina tied the game (Wednesday) with about three and a half minutes to play, I thought, ‘My goodness, they’re going to live to see another day,'” Bowman said. “And then, bang, the Panthers scored the winner with less than five seconds to play. Destiny is the only word that comes to mind.”