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Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad

AP Photo

Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) and Vegas center Chandler Stephenson (20) battle for the puck during a January game between this year’s Stanley Cup Final opponents.

The Panthers are on one of the most improbable runs in NHL history considering where they sat late in the regular season.

It looked like Florida, a year after winning the President’s Trophy for most regular-season points, would narrowly miss the playoffs. The Panthers didn’t claim their spot until the very last day, and needed some upsets elsewhere to clear the way.

Their odds remained long in round one against Boston, which had posted the best regular-season record in league history, and the Bruins surged to a 3-1 lead in the series. And then …the Panthers became nearly unbeatable, posting an 11-1 record since.

After dispatching Boston with three straight wins, Florida ousted Toronto in five game and then swept Carolina. That run through a trio of Eastern Conference powers sent the Panthers to their second-ever Stanley Cup Final, and first since 1996.

Here are five things to know about the Golden Knights’ next opponent.

Hello, Bob

Once upon a time, many considered Sergei Bobrovsky the best goalie in hockey. A two-time Vezina Trophy winner with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Bobrovsky cashed in on the acclaim by signing a seven-year, $70 million contract with Florida in the summer of 2019.

But that quickly started to look like one of the worst contracts in the NHL. The Russian known as “Bob” struggled through his first four seasons with the Panthers before unexpectedly breaking out this postseason.

The 34-year-old Bobrovsky now appears to be in vintage form with an 11-2 record in the playoffs, including a 2.21 goals per game allowed average and a .935 save percentage.

Matthew Tkachuk, superstar

Tkachuk led the Eastern Conference playoffs with nine goals and 21 points, but his value hasn’t just been about scoring. It’s about when he has scored.

Tkachuk has been part of five-game winning goals this postseason, scoring four of them, including the game-winner with five seconds remaining to clinch a Stanley Cup Final berth in the sweep of Carolina.

Tkachuk arrived in Florida following a blockbuster summer trade with the Calgary Flames, in which the Panthers sent out Jonathan Huberdeau, their leading scorer in 2021-2022, and defenseman Mackenzie Weegar. Moving on from Huberdeau was a risk, but it paid off. Tkachuk is one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player.

Big game Carter Verhaeghe

Verhaeghe has a knack for scoring when it matters most. He emerged in last year’s playoffs, chipping in six goals and 12 points in 10 games, and went on to show that was no fluke by scoring a career-high 42 goals in the regular season.

The 27-year-old forward has 15 points in 16 games this postseason, with a plus/minus of +11 during 5-on-5 play.

Behind the bench

Paul Maurice stepped down as Winnipeg Jets coach after eight seasons in 2021, citing what amounted to burnout. But he got the inch to return to the bench less than a year later, taking over a Florida team seeking the same thing—redemption.

The Panthers had struggled for years, going 26 years between playoff series wins (1996-2022), while Maurice could never fully get over the hump in Winnipeg. His best Jets team lost to the Golden Knights in five games in 2018’s Western Conference Final.

Maurice has been to the playoffs in five of the past six years, but this will be his first Cup Final appearance since leading the Hurricanes there in 2002, losing to the Detroit Red Wings in five games.

Oh, rats

If you go see the “Cats,” you’re also bound to encounter some rats. Panthers’ fans have a long-standing tradition of throwing plastic rats onto the ice after victories. It started in October 1995, when Panthers’ players noticed a rat in their locker room.

Legend has it Florida captain Scott Mellanby smacked the rat with his stick before going on to score two goals that night. Now, after every win, toy rats get thrown onto the ice.

Think of it as the Panthers’ version of the Golden Knights’ plastic flamingo celebration.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

Article written by #LasVegasSun