(Sunrise) Memories of the road to the Stanley Cup Finals will be everywhere as the Florida Panthers’ next season unfolds. We will see a banner in the heights of their arena to highlight the championship of the Eastern Conference of the NHL. Inevitably, there will be videos reminiscing about the best playoff moments. There will also be scars. Missed matches. And a lot of rehabilitation.
The goal for next season’s Panthers is simple and obvious: make it to the Grand Finals again, and win it. However, head coach Paul Maurice is sounding the alarm, aware that the physical impact of these playoffs on some players will carry over into next season.
“We’re going to have a really hard time qualifying for the playoffs next year. It is a fact,” he advised.
The data backs him up. The Panthers reached the playoffs this year by the narrowest of margins, a single point. There was no room for error and he already knows the team’s lineup in the opener won’t be the best he can send on the ice.
At least four Panthers players finished the campaign with broken bones. Some will need a few weeks to heal. Others will have to wait up to six months, Maurice noted.
The surgeries will begin soon. However, one of the negative sides of a qualification for the final is the short duration of the off-season. The training camps will start in about three months. Some Panthers color carriers won’t be ready yet.
“We’ve had so many injuries,” goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky said. The guys played with broken bones. They found a way. We struggled. […] It’s true, we didn’t go all the way, but we did an incredible job. »
Matthew Tkachuk, one of this season’s most valuable player finalists, played part of the final – and even scored a goal – with a broken sternum following a face-off. failed in Game 3 of the Finals against the Golden Knights.
There came a time when he was in so much pain that teammates had to help him put on his leggings, put his jersey over his head and lace up his skates. Tkachuk had to sit out Game 5 of the Finals on Tuesday, which the Golden Knights dominated and allowed them to eliminate the Panthers and win the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.
Defenseman Aaron Ekblad suffered a broken foot in the opening round against the Boston Bruins. He suffered two shoulder dislocations, had to go through concussion protocol and tore an oblique muscle. He only missed one game.
Radko Gudas should have missed six weeks with a sprained ankle; he only missed one period. Sam Bennett was banged up and kept playing.
“Now is not the time to stop. It’s not the place to stop,” Ekblad said after the Golden Knights’ ultimate 9-3 victory.
“There’s been a bump in the road and it’s going to pinch. It’s pinching right now. But we will find a way to come back next year and be stronger because of it. How not to after everything we’ve been through this year? »
There has been progress. The Panthers lost in the qualifying round in 2020. In 2021, they were eliminated in the first round. In 2022, they were sent on vacation after the second round. This year, they fell in the grand final.
One thing is clear: the Panthers are closing in on hockey’s ultimate trophy. Another thing that is clear: they haven’t arrived yet.
The first year of the Tkachuk era in Florida was a success, even with an unwanted conclusion. The Panthers have reached the Finals for the first time in 27 years, and most of the key players who have contributed to this journey already have contracts for next season (and some for several other campaigns).
Now, the franchise’s goal is clear: No more questioning whether the Panthers are good enough to aspire to a championship; the question is when the Panthers will achieve such a goal.
“Hockey is not the best thing about the sport,” Maurice said. Hockey is wonderful. We love sports. But the best thing is to find yourself in a locker room like this. It’s been a wonderful year. »
“It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said.
“Every time I put the skates on the ice, whether it’s in practice or in a game, I’ll remember this group. Quite an adventure. »