Scotty Bowman has been watching the Florida Panthers wide-eyed like the rest of the hockey world, and the winningest coach in NHL history thinks he can control their impressive run to the Stanley Cup Final.
“This is a team of destiny,” Bowman said on Thursday. “To be on the brink of elimination in the first round, to have won eight consecutive away games, to have won six consecutive overtime games, to be winning these close games … it shows something.”
There’s a lot of hockey to be played before the Panthers take the Stanley Cup to a winning run, having Florida knocked on the door in 1996, its third season, before being defeated in a four-game final by the Colorado Avalanche.
But the Panthers’ 11-1 run since April 26 was remarkable, even sensational, considering they were the Eastern Conference’s second wildcard in the playoffs, actually the lowest-ranked of 16 postseason playoffs.
The Panthers avoided elimination in three straight first-round games against the Boston Bruins, the top team in the NHL regular season. Trailing 3-1, Florida defeated the Presidents’ Trophy winners in overtime in Game 5, won Game 6 at home, and in Boston stunned the Bruins in overtime in Game 7.
“We want Florida!” cheered fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who shut out the Tampa Bay Lighting in a six-game first round for Toronto’s first series victory since 2004. The playoff road to better things looked smoother for Leaf Nation, if not for the team itself, with rivals Boston was eliminated in shocking fashion.
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Well, they got Florida, and a very quick five-game elimination against a team that seemed to extract tremendous energy from their win against Boston.
By this time, the Panthers were playing with house money, to use a casino expression. And then came the victory over Carolina, defeating the Hurricanes with four wins to one goal, Game 1 ended in Matthew Tkachuk‘s winner with 13 seconds left in the fourth overtime period.
The Panthers have now won all six of their overtime games this postseason. They could match or set the NHL record for consecutive road wins; Florida is two behind the 2012 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings 10. The Panthers are the fourth different team to enter the Stanley Cup Finals after winning 11 of their last 12 in the postseason, following the Montreal Canadiens in 1993, the Chicago Blackhawks in 1992 and the Edmonton Oilers in 1987 and 1983.
Three times since the NHL went to a four-round, best-of-7 playoff format in 1986-87, a team has rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the first round to advance to the second round and ultimately win the Stanley Cup:
The 1989-90 Oilers trailed the Winnipeg Jets before winning three straight, then beating the Kings, defeating 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 defeated the New York Rangers in six games and beat first the Bruins, then the Blackhawks to win the Cup.
Finally, the 2013-14 Kings rallied from their 3-1 first-round loss against the San Jose Sharks to advance, defeating the Anaheim Ducks and Blackhawks in seven games each before their five-game victory over the Rangers at the final.
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Bowman coached the 1991-92 Penguins and, a decade later, the 2001-02 Red Wings, two of his NHL-record nine Stanley Cup champions.
The Penguins started off with two losses in Washington, won Game 3 at home, and were beaten 7–2 in Game 4, setting the stage for three consecutive wins, Games 5 and 7 on the road.
The Red Wings lost the first two at home to the Canucks, then won four in a row, three of them in Vancouver.
But Bowman sees no comparison to any of those champions, or any other team, when considering the Panthers.
“It’s hard to imagine, in all the away games they’ve been winning, being so close to first-round elimination,” he said.
The tremendous work of the goalkeeper Sergei Bobrovsky, says Bowman, makes the Panthers play hockey without fear. From skating into Florida’s net late in the third period of Game 3 against the Bruins in relief of Alex LyonBobrovsky has been brilliant: 11-2 with a 2.21 goals-against average, . 935 save percentage and one shutout.
“Florida isn’t asking, ‘How do we protect the goaltender?’ because he’s protecting them,” Bowman said. “Bobrovsky has won the Vezina Trophy twice with Columbus (2013 and 2017) but has had his struggles since signing with the Panthers (in 2019). But he’s in that zone now. Players should have a lot of confidence just from what he’s done 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) night with about three and a half minutes to go, I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to live to see another day,'” Bowman said. “And then, bang! the Panthers scored the winning goal with less than five seconds left in the game. Destiny is the only word that comes to mind.”