Scotty Bowman watched the Florida Panthers with wide eyes, like the rest of the hockey world, and the winningest coach in NHL history thinks he could have a grip on their stunning run to the top. Stanley Cup final.
“It’s a team of fate,” Bowman said Thursday. “To have been on the verge of elimination in the first round, to have won eight straight on the road, to have won six straight games in overtime, to win those close games…it shows you something.”
There’s plenty of hockey to be played before the Panthers take the Stanley Cup on a winning streak, with Florida knocking 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, if not sensational, given they were the Eastern Conference’s second wildcard in the playoffs and the team with the fewest points in one of 16 playoff playoffs.
The Panthers have avoided elimination in three straight first-round games against the Boston Bruins, the NHL’s best regular-season team. Trailing 3-1, Florida beat the Presidents’ Trophy winners in overtime in Game 5, won Game 6 at home, and then Boston stunned the Bruins in overtime in Game 7.
“We want Florida!” gleefully chanted fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who knocked out Tampa Bay Lighting in six games in the first round for Toronto’s first series win since 2004. The playoff road to better things seemed easier to Leaf Nation, if not the team itself, with rival Boston shockingly eliminated.
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Well, they got Florida, and with it a five-game elimination against a team that seemed to draw tremendous energy from their win over Boston.
Now the Panthers were playing with house money, to coin a term casino. And then came their sweep of Carolina, dusting the Hurricanes with four one-goal wins, Game 1 ended on Matthew Tkachukwith 13 seconds left in the fourth overtime.
The Panthers won all six of their playoff overtime games. They could tie or set the NHL record for consecutive road wins; Florida is two behind the 10 Los Angeles Kings, the 2012 Stanley Cup champions. The Panthers are the fourth team to make the Stanley Cup Finals after winning 11 of their last 12 playoffs, following the Montreal Canadiens in 1993, the Chicago Blackhawks in 1992 and the Edmonton Oilers in 1987 and 1983.
Three times since the NHL moved to a best-of-seven four-round playoff format in 1986-87, a team has rallied from a 3-1 first-round deficit to advance to the second round and ultimately winning the Stanley Cup:
The 1989-90 Oilers edged the Winnipeg Jets to three straight wins, then swept the Kings, beat the Blackhawks in six games, then the Bruins in a five-game final.
The 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated three times against the Washington Capitals, then beat the New York Rangers in six games and swept first the Bruins and then the Blackhawks to win the Cup.
The 2013-14 Kings recovered 3-1 in the first round against the San Jose Sharks to advance, then beat the Anaheim Ducks and Blackhawks in seven games apiece before their five-game win over the Rangers in final.
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Bowman coached the Penguins from 1991-92 and, a decade later, the Red Wings from 2001-02, two of his nine Stanley Cup champions, an NHL record.
The Penguins started with two losses in Washington, won Game 3 at home, then were overwhelmed 7-2 in Game 4, setting the stage for three straight wins, Games 5 and 7 on the road.
The Red Wings lost the first two at home to the Canucks and then went on to win four straight, including three in Vancouver.
But Bowman sees no comparison to any of those champions, or any other team for that matter, when considering the Panthers.
“It’s hard to imagine, every game on the road that they win, being so close to first-round elimination,” he said.
The wonderful work of goalkeeper Sergei Bobrovsky, says Bowman, makes the Panthers play hockey without fear. Since skating into the Florida net late in the third period of Game 3 against the Bruins, relieving Alexander LyonsBobrovsky was brilliant: 11-2 with a 2.21 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and one shutout.
“Florida doesn’t ask, ‘How do we protect the goaltender?’ because he protects them,” Bowman said. “Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy twice with Columbus (2013, 2017), but he’s struggled since signing with the Panthers (in 2019). But he is in such a zone now. The players must have so much confidence just for what he did. himself.”
Nine of the Panthers’ 12 wins have come by a single goal, another illustration of the icy water in Bobrovsky’s veins.
“When Carolina tied the game (Wednesday) with about three and a half minutes left, I thought, ‘God, they’ll live to see another day,'” Bowman said. “And then, bang, the Panthers scored the winner with less than five seconds left. Destiny is the only word that comes to mind.”