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Tkachuk scores late to send Panthers to Stanley Cup finals with sweep of Hurricanes

Matthew Tkachuk was re-shipped to Florida. Sergey Bobrovsky again denied Karolina.

The wait is over. After 27 years, the Florida Panthers, no longer hockey’s punchline, are once again set to play for the game’s biggest prize.

Tkachuk scored his second goal of the game with 4.9 seconds left to give the Panthers a 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes and their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1996 after sweeping the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Panthers will play either Vegas or Dallas for the Stanley Cup starting next week. Vegas currently leads the Western Conference title series 3-0.

“It was pure joy,” Panthers coach Paul Morris said.

Bobrovsky stopped 36 shots to end his stellar streak. four games, four one-goal wins, three mostly in sudden death, a .966 save percentage after stopping 174 of 180 shots he faced. The first two wins came in overtime, and this one might as well.

The Panthers scored 10 goals in the series, and Bobrovsky made sure that was all they needed. They were the No. 8 seed, the last team, on a long shot, which is consistent with their history, after not winning a playoff series in 26 years, a drought that ended last season.

And now, beasts of the east. Tkachuk arrived last summer saying he wanted to bring Florida a trophy. He has four wins.

“It’s amazing,” Bobrowski said. β€œWe showed resilience … and we’re lucky to have Chucky by our side. He knows how to score big goals.”

NHL Senior Vice President Brian Jennings was tasked with presenting the Prince of Wales Trophy. After a few snaps, Alexander Barkov, a senior who had two assists, one of which was the game-winner, scooped it up and skated it away. Some teams touch it. Some don’t. Several of the Panthers did, but Barkov didn’t pass.

That will wait for the big prize.

“It’s hard to explain now, everything happened very quickly,” said Barkov. β€œIt means a lot. It definitely means… It hasn’t been easy, and nobody said it was going to be easy.”

Tkachuk added. “We earned that thing, and we certainly didn’t do it the easy way. We earned it.”

Hockey team members and a man in a suit pose at center ice with a trophy.
Panthers players pose with the Prince of Wales trophy alongside NHL senior executive vice president and chief branding officer Brian Jennings after sweeping the Hurricanes. (Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports)

Ryan Lomberg and Anthony Duclair had the other goals for Florida, which swept the series for the first time in franchise history.

Jordan Staal, whose brothers Eric and Mark play for the Panthers, called a penalty kick with 57 seconds left in regulation, setting up a power play that ended after Tkachuk drove in and beat Frederik Andersen to set off a wild celebration. :

“We have our eyes on something else.”

“Eastern Conference champs,” Florida quarterback Aaron Ekblad said. β€œIt’s really cool. No doubt about it. But you know, at the end of the day, we’re looking at something else.”

Toy rats, a Panthers tradition, a nod to unwelcome visitors to the old Florida arena in 1996, sailed from the stands and the goal had to survive official review. But the rats rallied, the goal was called good, and the 27-year wait was officially over in 4.9 seconds.

Jesper Fast looked like he might save the season for Carolina with the tying goal with 3:22 left in regulation. Paul Stastny and Tevo Teravainen scored the first two goals of the night for the Hurricanes, while Brady Skjei and Jordan Martinuk had two assists each. Andersen blocked 21 shots.

“Everyone will say, ‘You got swept away.’ It didn’t happen that way,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind Amour said. β€œI watched the game. I’m there. I cut the games. We are in the game. We didn’t lose four games. We lost, but we were right there. This could have been different. It could have been four games the other way around.”

It wasn’t sour grapes. He was right. A bounce here, a bounce there, Bobrovsky not here, Bobrovsky not there, and this series could have gone a lot differently.

But Bob was at his best. Tkachuk was clutch, over and over again. And Florida is as close to the Cup as it’s ever been. In the 1996 final, the Panthers beat Colorado.

Towels were waved, strobe lights flashed and the fans wasted no time in letting the Panthers know they were ready for the clincher.

In the middle of the first, Tkachuk made it 2-0. Carolina, the team that won the division title with 113 points in the regular season, later made it 2-1 on Stastny’s goal before Teravainen tied it early in the second.

It was the first time in nearly 14 periods to that point that a team had taken a two-goal lead in the series. Every action in the first 272 minutes of the series (including all added time) ended in a draw or one apiece.

Lomberg’s goal midway through the second gave Florida the lead again. It stayed that way until Fast tied the score with 3:22 left, and then Tkachuk finished it off, leading the Panthers to the title game in his first season.

“Since July, it’s been unbelievable when I’ve been here,” Tkachuk said. “And hopefully we can cap off this great year.”

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