The Florida Panthers are on brink of returning to Eastern Conference Finals

Florida's depth excels as they head home with a 3-1 series advantage over the Boston Bruins.
Florida Panthers v Boston Bruins - Game Four
Florida Panthers v Boston Bruins - Game Four / Rich Gagnon/GettyImages

Backing a 30-year history, the Florida Panthers remain one of 11 National Hockey League franchises with an empty shelf in its trophy room. In 2023, the club pushed itself from the final team in the playoff race to the Stanley Cup Final. 

Here they are again with seven wins under their belt, and one away from competing atop the Eastern Conference.

They hold a 3-1 series lead, looking for a second straight five-game series, succeeding that of Florida’s first-round victory over the in-state foe, the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

“We’ve got the desire,” says Head Coach Paul Maurice. 

Despite recent success, the Florida Panthers have faced adversity

After the Panthers fell in dominant fashion to the Vegas Golden Knights in last year’s postseason, it was evident that changes needed to be made.

Acquiring physical players, veteran leaders, and additional goal scorers was deemed a necessity to bring Florida to the top of the hockey world. They’ve done exactly that, one win away from knocking out the Boston Bruins for the second consecutive season.

“The elimination games are usually the hardest. That’s when they’re going to be pushing the most. We have to be prepared to match that intensity” said forward Evan Rodrigues.

Rodrigues was built for the moment. Yet, that’s what the Canadian speedster was signed for. A bottom six-piece that has stepped up when necessary. 

While the Panthers have relied on its exceptional reserves thus far, the subtractions to the lineup cannot go without regard.

Paul Maurice lost his fourth-line spark in Ryan Lomberg, a fan favorite who enjoys utilizing his 5’9” frame as an annoyance to the opposition. Lomberg was scratched from the lineup ever since, following an illness that posed itself after the opening game of Round 1. 

Sam Bennett was also a victim of missed time as he took a friendly-fire slapshot to the wrist in game two of the Tampa Bay series. Bennett, the second-line center, has amassed 41 points in the 2024 campaign, 20 of those goals, tacked on with 21 assists. 

Evan Rodrigues, Steven Lorentz, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Kyle Okposo. These names have all been additions to South Florida over the past few months, with Lorentz and Rodrigues as preseason free-agent signings and Tarasenko and Okposo being trade-deadline acquisitions. 

Rodrigues has been an absolute workhorse for Florida’s lineup. The versatile 30-year-old who signed a four-year deal has stepped up his play, netting two goals in Game 3 and assisting on two in the 3-2 come-from-behind Game 4 win at TD Garden in Boston. Paul Maurice stressed his efforts as “his two best games of the year”. 

“I also think his best hockey was played as soon as he went with (Eetu) Luostarinen and (Anton) Lundell. Then with Sam Bennett's injury, we didn't get to see it, but I think Evan is the kind of guy that can elevate his play in the playoffs.”

Maurice linked Rodrigues’ play to the jumbled lineup that he’s been putting out. The same goes for the veteran presence of Kyle Okposo. Both skaters have been elevated in the past two contests amid injuries, with Rodrigues taking the top spot on the power play as Sam Reinhart was banged up.

Okposo, who has played just six games in the red sweater, played alongside Aleksander Barkov and Vladimir Tarasenko on the top line and stood alongside the half-wall on the second powerplay unit. The 36-year-old recorded an assist on a third-period goal from Florida’s captain, Barkov.

Okposo, who played nine seasons with the New York Islanders and seven with the Buffalo Sabres, had only experienced playoff hockey three times. He concludes that his move to Florida is “100 percent the best opportunity” he’s had. “I just love playoff hockey, but I've never had a chance where you feel like you really have a chance to win."

The other deadline pickup in Vladimir Tarasenko is quite the opposite, however. The Russian forward owns 12 years of playing time and prevails as the lone player on Florida’s roster who has won a Stanley Cup. He has scored two power-play goals and tallied three assists in the nine playoff games. 

The wild card of them all is the man sporting No. 18 on the back of his jersey. Steven Lorentz has defied all odds since slotting in as the fourth-line center in the absence of Ryan Lomberg. Playing in just 38 matchups in the regular season, Lorentz marked just three points to his name.

In Game 4 of the initial round, Lorentz buried a goal and an assist in just eight minutes of ice time. In an attempt to grasp the series lead, which was tied one game apiece, Lorentz silenced the boastful Boston faithful with an immaculate tip-in deflection.

Florida went on to take that game and continue its momentum to eventually own a 3-1 lead coming back home for Game 5.

The Florida Panthers look like the fastest, grittiest, and most fundamentally sound team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They even lead the series shot count by a humongous margin, placing 146 shots on goal to Boston’s lackluster 79.

Will they pull off a gentleman’s sweep of Boston to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals? The Bruins and Panthers will face off in Sunrise on Tuesday night with puck drop slotted for 7 p.m.