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SportsPulse, USA TODAY
The Florida Panthers survived a late tying goal by the Carolina Hurricanes, were awarded a late power play and survived a review when they went ahead on a Matthew Tkachuk goal with 4.9 seconds left.
That’s the kind of fate that has the 92-point Panthers heading to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 with a 4-3 victory in Game 4 to complete a sweep of the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday night.
The Panthers have beaten the record-setting 135-point Boston Bruins, 111-point Toronto Maple Leafs and 113-point Hurricanes along the way.
Carolina’s Jesper Fast had tied the game with 3:22 left, but Jordan Staal was called for tripping at 19:03. Tkachuk circled out front to beat Hurricanes goalie Frederik Andersen for the winner. He was set up by captain Aleksander Barkov, who had missed most of Game 3 with an injury. The NHL’s situation room reviewed to see if there was goaltender interference and declared it a good goal.
“Seeing the belief and seeing just the calmness (to) us is really something special,” Tkachuk told reporters. “Nothing rattles us. I mean they score with three minutes left. You’d think that, ‘Uh oh, here we go. What’s going to happen?’ But it’s like the opposite.”
The Panthers were a 122-point team last season, winning the Presidents’ Trophy, but were ousted in the second round. General manager of the year finalist Bill Zito then put together a team that at first looked like it might not make the playoffs but surged down the stretch and was better suited for postseason play once it clinched the final wild-card spot.
His biggest move was acquiring gritty scorer Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames in a summer blockbuster. He gave up 115-point scorer Jonathan Huberdeau and top-two defenseman MacKenzie Weegar in the deal. Zito also hired coach Paul Maurice to get the Panthers playing better defense.
Tkachuk finished with 109 points this season and is a Hart Trophy finalist. He has scored three overtime goals this postseason, including two this round, and scored his eighth and ninth playoff goals in Game 4. He scored three game-winners and set up the other during the conference final.
“It’s been an unreal addition,” Barkov said. “Everyone sees what he’s doing on the ice, but off ice, it’s been eye-opening how great of a person he is and how he breathes hockey.”
Tkachuk and Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky are front-runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Bobrovsky didn’t start in the playoffs until Game 4 of the first round, which he lost. But he has gone 11-1 since and stopped Boston’s Brad Marchand on a breakaway in the final seconds of regulation of Game 5. He has a 2.21 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage.
Bobrovsky had his streak of allowing two or fewer goals end at eight games on Wednesday, but he finished with 36 saves. He stopped 63 stops in the four-overtime Game 1, stopped 37 shots in Game 2 and had a 32-save shutout in Game 3.
Hurricanes lose top defenseman Jaccob Slavin
Carolina’s top defenseman Jaccob Slavin left 87 seconds into the first period after a big hit by Florida’s Sam Bennett. Slavin hit his head on the boards and then on the ice. He tried getting up but fell again and was helped to the dressing room.
Slavin would have been killing the Staal penalty had he been playing. He told reporters after the game that he was fine and it was a clean hit.
“Guys went down (also Stefan Noesen and Martin Necas, briefly),” said Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour. “We’re losing our best players and we just kept playing. From the seat I had, that was a pretty good game and a pretty impressive effort.”
What’s next for the Florida Panthers?
The Panthers, who had never swept a series in their history, will face the Vegas Golden Knights or Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final and look to win their first championship. The Golden Knights lead the Western Conference final 3-0, heading into Thursday’s Game 4, and the Stars will be missing suspended captain Jamie Benn.
“We know that we’ve played some really good teams so far in this playoffs, and we know that the next team is going to be unbelievable as well,” Tkachuk said. “More wins, more points, more whatever than we have. Kind of that similar feel of being the underdog and trying to prove people wrong again.”
The big question is always whether the winning team will touch the conference championship trophy. The Panthers did as Barkov (two assists) carried it off the ice.
The 1996 Panthers were swept in the Final by the Colorado Avalanche.
What’s next for the Carolina Hurricanes?
The Hurricanes, who didn’t have difference-maker Andrei Svechnikov for the entire playoffs, fell to 0-12 in their last three appearances in the conference finals. They lost each game in this year’s third round by one goal.
General manager Don Waddell has a lot of decisions to make with 10 players heading into unrestricted free agency. That list includes top goalies Andersen and Antti Raanta, captain Staal, Game 4 scorer Paul Stastny and Fast, who scored the series-clinching goal in the second round.