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How the Panthers — not Knights — returned to the Stanley Cup Final

It’s supposed to be difficult for teams to make the Stanley Cup Final in consecutive years.

No one gave that memo to the Florida Panthers.

Florida will play for the Cup for the second straight year after defeating the New York Rangers in six games. The Panthers’ next opponent is the Edmonton Oilers, who eliminated the Dallas Stars in six games Sunday.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final is Saturday at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Florida.

“It starts with training camp and the belief in this group that we weren’t going to be satisfied with just getting to the Cup Final,” Florida center Sam Bennett told reporters after eliminating the Rangers. “We put in a lot of hard work to get back here. It took a lot, but we’re not satisfied yet. We still have a job to do.”

The Panthers’ path to the Stanley Cup Final was much different than the one they took last year to play the Golden Knights.

Florida was a Cinderella last year, winning the Eastern Conference despite starting as the No. 8 seed. The Panthers’ magic ran out in the last round. The Knights dominated most of the series and won their first championship in five games.

This time around Florida earned 110 points in the regular season, tied for the fourth-most in the NHL. The Panthers were the higher seed in the first and second rounds before defeating the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers.

“They’re just more, on a personality basis, a more serious group,” coach Paul Maurice said. “They’re more even-keeled than last year’s team. We needed that last year. We needed them to not be even-keeled and be wired and jacked and celebratory. It was how we did get there. They came into camp with an eye on where they wanted to go.”

What the Panthers accomplished is not easy. They’re the third team in the last 45 years — and the first since the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins — to reach the Stanley Cup Final after losing it the year before.

The Knights themselves are an example of the challenges that come with attempting to make a deep run two seasons in a row. They lost to the Stars in seven games in the first round.

Here are three reasons why the Panthers are still playing:

1. Health

The Knights battled injuries throughout the regular season in 2022-23, but they stayed healthy most of their playoff run.

That proved pivotal to their success. Florida, on the other hand, didn’t have star right wing Matthew Tkachuk for the decisive Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final because of an upper-body fracture.

The Panthers’ injury luck turned this year.

Right wing Sam Reinhart, who led the team with 57 goals and 94 points, played all 82 regular-season games. Tkachuk missed only two.

Other key players like defenseman Gustav Forsling (79 games played), center Anton Lundell (78) and left wing Carter Verhaeghe (76 games played) rarely left the lineup.

Florida’s fortune has extended into the playoffs. The only key player to miss time is Bennett, who was out five games after suffering an upper-body injury during the first round.

2. Strong defense

The Knights showed in their first season under coach Bruce Cassidy that great defense can take a team far.

The Panthers are following that blueprint this year.

Florida has allowed three goals or fewer in all but three of its games this postseason. The Panthers lost 5-4 in overtime in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final, then proceeded to allow five goals their next three games to advance. Vezina Trophy finalist Sergei Bobrovsky has been sharp with a .908 save percentage and 2.20 goals-against average in the playoffs.

The Knights likewise leaned on their defense last postseason. They allowed 2.59 goals per game overall and 2.40 per game in the Stanley Cup Final.

3. Roster building

The Knights and Panthers built their teams in similar ways.

Florida took a big swing for a superstar in Tkachuk, making a blockbuster deal with the Calgary Flames in July 2022. It was similar to the Knights’ key trades for captain Mark Stone and center Jack Eichel.

The Panthers have also made several smaller moves that have paid dividends, like picking Forsling off the waiver wire or signing defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson after he was bought out by the Vancouver Canucks. The Knights’ success was powered by some under-the-radar pickups as well. They acquired center Chandler Stephenson for a fifth-round pick and grabbed right wing Michael Amadio off waivers.

Time will tell if Florida’s decisions will pay off as well as the Knights’ did. But getting to the Stanley Cup Final two years in a row is an impressive accomplishment by itself.

Contact Danny Webster at dwebster@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DannyWebster21 on X.

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