NHL Push for the Playoffs: One question for every playoff team

NHL Push for the Playoffs: One question for every playoff team
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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2021-22 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

With each passing day, there’s less and less to be settled for the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even teams who don’t yet know their playoff opponent have a good idea who it will be. Of course, all 16 NHL playoff teams have already been determined.

As the 2021-22 season all-but-ends on Friday (there’s an explosively irrelevant makeup game Sunday between the Jets and Kraken), let’s ponder a question of all 16 NHL playoff teams.

Let’s mix the order of things up by starting with the West.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

NHL playoff questions: one for each of the 8 teams in the Western Conference

Avalanche: Should there be any concern about a (relatively) sluggish finish?

From April 18-24, the Avalanche endured a four-game losing streak, with each loss in regulation. The Oilers were the only playoff team in that bunch.

It prompted some to wonder if something’s wrong with the Avalanche. The best guess is that they were meandering through the end of a schedule where the West was already won. Still, you always want to enter the playoffs on a positive note, instead of stumbling — by admittedly high standards.

Blues: How long is the leash for Ville Husso?

As much as NHL teams want to win, political pressures can pull on a team when it comes to picking starting goalies.

In what could be a close series against the Wild, the Blues may feel pressure to turn to Jordan Binnington if Ville Husso suffers a bad start. After all, Binnington has that Stanley Cup win on his resume, he’s getting paid $6M per year through 2026-27, and Ville Husso’s NHL resume is small. (Husso hasn’t played a playoff game, and only has 56 NHL contests to his name.)

It sounds like Husso will start for the Blues in Game 1 vs. the Wild, but fair or not, the “tie” goes to the holdover.

It really needs to be noted just how strong of a season Husso’s put together for the Blues.

Husso is 25-6-6 with a .921 save percentage and 16.7 Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA). Binnington, meanwhile, is 18-14-4 with a .901 save percentage and a -6.6 GSAA.

That disparity should earn Husso some benefit of the doubt, but we’ll see what actually happens.

Wild: Would they waver from Marc-Andre Fleury?

While the Blues risk being too impatient with Ville Husso, the Wild have an interesting goalie situation to watch, too. They may end up presenting a flip: if they need to change goalies, will they identify the problem fast enough?

Naturally, they acquired Marc-Andre Fleury at the trade deadline in hopes that he’d be a difference-maker. While Fleury and Cam Talbot give the Wild a steady duo, Dean Evason still must choose who to start and who to sit.

So far with the Wild, Fleury’s put up very similar stats to those of Cam Talbot. Minnesota might be open-minded, especially if the Blues and Wild end up scoring a ton of goals.

Flames: Will Johnny Gaudreau‘s sensational season translate to the playoffs?

Ah, NHL playoff time. When people wildly overreact to a couple weeks or a month of games that are simply more random than the more controlled play of, say, the NBA.

To some, Johnny Gaudreau is someone who can’t deliver in the playoffs. After all, he only managed an assist in five postseason games in 2018-19, and also went without a goal in four games in 2016-17. If it seems like Gaudreau goes cold after a season that thrust him back into the Hart Trophy conversation, then people will get weird, fast.

While the Flames provide more support for Gaudreau than ever, there’s still a huge gulf in production between Gaudreau’s line with Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk vs. everyone else. A strong playoff run is the final piece of the puzzle for Gaudreau (who could really up his earning power, either with the Flames, or in free agency.)

Oilers: Is Edmonton a truly elite team under Jay Woodcroft?

Under Dave Tippett, the Oilers were a modest 23-18-3. Since Jay Woodcroft took over, the Oilers are 24-9-3. It doesn’t look like it’s beginner’s luck, alone, either.

That said, the Kings figure to challenge the Oilers’ structure, and maybe frustrate Connor McDavid by getting away with penalties. The narrative around Edmonton can change in a heartbeat — like a toilet seat going up and down.

Kings: Does Jonathan Quick have another strong playoff run in him?

The most likely path for the Kings to beat the Oilers is fairly simple. Contain that Oilers star power at 5-on-5, avoid taking too many penalties, and then win the goaltending battle.

Luckily, Jonathan Quick’s enjoyed a (fairly shocking) season of redemption. For the first time since 2017-18, Quick’s produced a positive GSAA, with a 3.3 mark heading into Thursday. They’ll need the veteran goalie to be sharp, and maybe hope for the opposite from Mike Smith at the other end.

Predators: Connor Ingram or David Rittich?

The Predators defied expectations by making the NHL playoff mix. With Juuse Saros most likely out, they’ll face even bigger odds in trying to win a series. It’s up to John Hynes to make the right call between journeyman backup David Rittich or largely untested Connor Ingram (or someone else, even?).

Stars: Can they replicate that 2020 Stanley Cup Final run?

From different goalies to an overwhelming emphasis on the Roope HintzJason RobertsonJoe Pavelski line, this Stars team isn’t the same as the one who made a surprise run. The formula is similar, though: stifle opponents, and hope to score enough to grind out wins.

It hasn’t always been pretty this season for the Stars, but it’s the sort of formula that can power a run every now and then.

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Joel Auerbach/NHLI via Getty Images

NHL playoff questions: one for each of the 8 teams in the Eastern Conference

Panthers: Can their style work in the playoffs?

Look, I don’t like asking that question. It would be a shame if the Panthers fall short, and then deviate from a high-octane style that produced easily their best-ever playoff results. But dusty folks will be eager to doubt them if the Panthers stumble.

Maple Leafs: Will they crack under the pressure?

Most likely drawing the Lightning is just so cruel and just so Maple Leafs. For all we know, the Lightning could be primed for a “three-peat.” For many, it doesn’t matter: the Maple Leafs are failures if they fall in the first round again. It’s an unenviable situation, but also makes for great theater.

Lightning: Could they run out of gas?

Repeating is already tough enough in the modern NHL. But stringing three straight Stanley Cup runs together? Audacious. The Lightning haven’t exactly let up on their workhorses, sending Victor Hedman out for more than 25 minutes per game, and squeezing another heavy workload out of Andrei Vasilevskiy. Don’t be shocked if they hit a wall.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

Hurricanes: Will goaltending undo them again?

After boldly revamping their goaltending in the offseason, the Carolina Hurricanes were vindicated. Frederik Andersen deserves to be a Vezina finalist, and teams might kick themselves for not giving Antti Raanta a longer look. Yet, both goalies suffered late-season injuries. Even if they’re both good to go, are we certain they’ll be at full-strength for the Hurricanes?

Rangers: Will they get a healthy Artemi Panarin and Andrew Copp?

Speaking of late-season injuries, the Rangers lost Artemi Panarin and Andrew Copp in a game where the Hurricanes clinched the Atlantic Division. Remove those two — or deploy them with physical limitations — and the Rangers may lose some of the gains they’ve made since the trade deadline.

Penguins: Did Pittsburgh miss its best window to truly compete?

At times this season, the Penguins looked like they could be dangerous. That hasn’t been the case as often down the stretch, particularly with Tristan Jarry suffering an injury. Don’t count this team out … but they could be on the verge of five straight seasons without a series win.

Bruins: Can they get enough goaltending to win with a low margin for error?

Even before trading for Hampus Lindholm, the Bruins provided arguably the best defensive structure of any team in the NHL. Combine that defense with an offense that’s found more balance at times, and the Bruins are about as fearsome as a wild-card team can get.

Chances are, though, the Bruins are going to hope for low-scoring games, and that means their goalies (Linus Ullmark or Jeremy Swayman) need to deliver.

Capitals: Will Alex Ovechkin be available, and healthy?

The Russian Machine didn’t necessarily break, but it took some damage. It’s unclear if Alex Ovechkin will be available early in a playoff series, and if he’ll be close to full-strength even if he’s in the lineup. Ovechkin scored 50 goals and 90 points in 77 games this season, so yeah, this is pretty big for a Capitals team hoping to pull off some upsets.

IF PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY (sorted by points percentage)

Panthers vs. Capitals
Maple Leafs vs. Lightning

Hurricanes vs. Bruins
Rangers vs. Penguins

Avalanche vs. Stars
Wild vs. Blues

Flames vs. Predators
Oilers vs. Kings


Blue Jackets vs. Penguins, 7 p.m. ET
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET
Capitals vs. Rangers, 7 p.m. ET
Lightning vs. Islanders, 7:30 p.m. ET
Avalanche vs. Wild, 8 p.m. ET
Ducks vs. Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET



Tampa Bay will clinch the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic Division (and an A2-A3 First Round matchup vs. Toronto) and Boston will clinch the Wild Card 1 seed (and an M1-WC1 First Round matchup vs. Carolina):

* If Tampa Bay defeats NY Islanders in any fashion


* If Tampa Bay gets one point vs. NY Islanders AND Toronto defeats Boston in any fashion


* If Toronto defeats Boston in regulation.

Boston will clinch the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic Division (and an A2-A3 First Round matchup vs. Toronto) and Tampa Bay will clinch the Wild Card 1 seed (and an M1-WC1 First Round matchup vs. Carolina):

* If Boston defeats Toronto in any fashion AND NY Islanders defeat Tampa Bay in any fashion


* If Boston gets one point vs. Toronto AND NY Islanders defeat Tampa Bay in regulation.

Pittsburgh will clinch the No. 3 seed in the Metropolitan Division (and an M2-M3 First Round matchup vs. NY Rangers) and Washington will clinch the Wild Card 2 seed (and an A1-WC2 First Round matchup vs. Florida):

* If Pittsburgh gets at least one point vs. Columbus


* If NY Rangers defeat Washington in any fashion.

Washington will clinch the No. 3 seed in the Metropolitan Division (and an M2-M3 First Round matchup vs. NY Rangers) and Pittsburgh will clinch the Wild Card 2 seed (and an A1-WC2 First Round matchup vs. Florida):

* If Washington defeats NY Rangers in any fashion AND Columbus defeats Pittsburgh in regulation.


Minnesota will clinch the No. 2 seed in the Central Division (and home-ice advantage in the C2-C3 First Round matchup vs. St. Louis):

* If Minnesota gets at least one point vs. Colorado


* If Vegas defeats St. Louis in any fashion.

St. Louis will clinch the No. 2 seed in the Central Division (and home-ice advantage in the C2-C3 First Round matchup vs. Minnesota):

* If St. Louis defeats Vegas in any fashion AND Colorado defeats Minnesota in regulation.

Nashville will clinch the Wild Card 1 seed (and a P1-WC1 First Round matchup vs. Calgary) and Dallas will clinch the Wild Card 2 seed (and a C1-WC2 First Round matchup vs. Colorado):

* If Nashville gets at least one point vs. Arizona


* If Anaheim defeats Dallas in any fashion.

Dallas will clinch the Wild Card 1 seed (and a P1-WC1 First Round matchup vs. Calgary) and Nashville will clinch the Wild Card 2 seed (and a C1-WC2 First Round matchup vs. Colorado):

* If Dallas defeats Anaheim in any fashion AND Arizona defeats Nashville in regulation.


Panthers – clinched No. 1 seed in Eastern Conference
Maple Leafs – clinched
Lightning – clinched
Bruins – clinched
Red Wings – eliminated
Sabres – eliminated
Senators – eliminated
Canadiens – eliminated


Hurricanes – clinched Metropolitan Division title
Rangers – clinched
Penguins – clinched
Capitals – clinched
Islanders – eliminated
Blue Jackets – eliminated
Flyers – eliminated
Devils – eliminated


Avalanche – clinched No. 1 seed in Western Conference
Wild – clinched
Blues – clinched
Predators – clinched
Stars – clinched
Jets – eliminated
Blackhawks – eliminated
Coyotes – eliminated


Flames – clinched Pacific Division
Oilers – clinched
Kings – clinched
Golden Knights – eliminated
Canucks – eliminated
Ducks – eliminated
Sharks – eliminated
Kraken – eliminated

draft lottery
Getty Images


18.5% – Canadiens
13.5% – Coyotes
11.5% – Kraken
9.5% – Flyers
8.5% – Devils
7.5% – Blackhawks (*conditional)
6.5% – Senators
6.0% – Red Wings
5.0% – Sabres
3.5% – Ducks
3.0% – Sharks
2.5% – Blue Jackets
2.0% – Islanders
1.5% – Jets
0.5% – Canucks
0.5% – Golden Knights (*conditional)

“Beginning this season there will be a limit on the total number of selections (10) a team participating in the lottery can move up in the event it wins one of the lottery draws, a change announced by the NHL on March 23, 2021. Only the top 11 seeds will be eligible to receive the No. 1 selection in the 2022 draft.”

The 2022 NHL Draft Lottery drawing will be held May 10


Connor McDavid, Oilers – 123 points
Jonathan Huberdeau, Panthers – 115
Johnny Gaudreau, Flames – 115
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 110
Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs – 106
Kirill Kaprizov, Wild – 106


Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs – 60 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 55
Chris Kreider, Rangers – 52
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 50
Kyle Connor, Jets – 46
Kirill Kaprizov, Wild – 46
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 44

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    Dellandrea scores twice in 3rd, Stars stay alive with 4-2 victory over Golden Knights

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS — With Dallas’ season on the line, the Stars got two critical goals from a player who was a healthy scratch the first two games of the Western Conference Final.

    Ty Dellandrea‘s goals came within a 1:27 span midway through the third period, and the Stars beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 to keep alive their hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final to face the Florida Panthers.

    “He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever played with,” said Stars goalie Jake Oettinger, who made 27 saves. “He deserves every opportunity he gets, and there’s no one happier for him than the guys in this room. It shows how special you are when you get taken out. He didn’t make it about him. He needed the opportunity to step up, and that’s what he did.”

    The Stars escaped elimination for the second game in a row and head to Dallas for Game 6 down 3-2. Dallas is attempting to become the fifth team in NHL history to win a series after being down 3-0.

    And look who’s back for the Stars? Captain Jamie Benn returns after a two-game suspension for his cross-check to the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in Game 3. That was the only game in this series that was decided early, and the Stars hadn’t even had a multigoal lead.

    “I know our group, and we weren’t happy about being in the hole we were in, and they decided to do something about it,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “And now we’re rolling.”

    The only problem for DeBoer was waiting two days to play Game 6.

    “Drop the puck,” he said.

    DeBoer said before the game if his team won, the pressure would shift to the Knights. Now it’s up to them to respond after twice being a period away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final and letting both opportunities slip away.

    “I don’t think we brought our best the last two games,” Stone said. “We were still in a good spot to win the game. We’ve got to bring a little bit better effort and start playing a little more desperate.”

    Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said “it’s a very good question” why his team didn’t play with more desperation, but he also wasn’t thrilled with the Knights’ execution.

    “We had 24 giveaways,” Cassidy said. “I’m not sure you’re beating the Arizona Coyotes in January with 24 giveaways. That’s no disrespect to Arizona, but it’s not the right way to play.”

    Dellandrea found the right way to play and put together the first multigoal playoff game of his career. Jason Robertson and Luke Glendening also scored, and Thomas Harley had two assists.

    Chandler Stephenson and Ivan Barbashev scored for the Knights, and Jonathan Marchessault had two assists to extend his points streak to four games. Adin Hill made 30 saves.

    Dellandrea scored from the right circle to put Dallas ahead, the puck deflecting off Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo with 9:25 left for a 3-2 lead. Then, Dellandrea scored from the slot with 7:58 remaining.

    Dellandrea said the older players kept him motivated when he was temporarily sidelined.

    “There’s no denying it’s hard,” he said. “I’m thankful for a good group of character guys, and you’ve just got to stay ready.”

    The teams traded goals in the first two periods.

    Jack Eichel battled two Stars players for the puck in Vegas’ offensive zone, and then Barbashev swooped in and made a fantastic move to glide past Oettinger and score with 6:24 left in the first period. The Stars wasted little time in answering when Glendening scored on a deflection less than two minutes later.

    Dallas was robbed of what looked like a sure goal when Hill snagged a point-blank shot from Roope Hintz, who then threw his back in disbelief.

    Like in the first period, the Knights had a goal in the second quickly answered by one from the Stars. Stephenson scored from the left circle at 16:40 of the period, and Robertson knocked his own rebounds 2:09 later to make it 2-2. Stephenson tied the Knights’ record with his eight playoff goal this year, and Robertson had his fifth of the series.

    Sabres sign Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnston to 2-year rookie contract

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres ended a lengthy wait by signing Ryan Johnston to a two-year, entry level contract more than a month after the defenseman completed his senior college season at Minnesota.

    Johnston will report immediately to the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, whose best-of-seven Eastern Conference final playoff series against Hershey is tied at 1.

    From Southern California, Johnston is listed at 6-feet and 170 pounds and was selected 31st in 2019 draft.

    His puck-moving skills fit Buffalo’s style of play, Johnston finished his college career with nine goals and 59 points in 143 career games, including four goals and 18 points in 40 games this year. He reached the NCAA’s Frozen Four in each of his final two seasons, with the Gophers losing in the semifinals last year, followed by a 3-2 overtime loss to Quinnipiac in the championship game last month.

    He also had a goal and three assists in seven games representing the U.S. team that won gold at the 2021 world junior championships.

    Johnston, who turns 22 in July, had the option to wait until August when he would’ve become an unrestricted free agent and eligible to sign with any team. Because Johnston was first-round pick, the Sabres would’ve been compensated with a 2024 second-round selection had he signed elsewhere.

    Both sides are banking on the player’s age and college experience to enable Johnston to make the jump to the NHL within the next two seasons. The Sabres will still control Johnston’s rights as a restricted free agent once his entry-level contract expires.

    Joe Pavelski scores on OT power play, Stars beat Golden Knights 3-2 to avoid West sweep

    stars golden knights
    Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

    DALLAS — Joe Pavelski admits that he probably appreciates the big playoff goals more the later he gets in his career. But they all still feel just as good, and his latest kept the season alive for the Dallas Stars.

    “Just really living in the moment,” Pavelski said. “A tremendous feeling for sure, and glad we could play another game, and go from there and try to extend it.”

    The 38-year-old Pavelski scored on a power play at 3:18 of overtime – a one-timer from the middle of the left circle to the far post – and the Stars avoided a sweep in the Western Conference Final with a 3-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Jason Robertson scored twice for his first career multigoal playoff game for Dallas, which played without suspended captain Jamie Benn.

    “We’re looking for goals and that’s kind of my responsibility I put on myself,” Robertson said. “I know these playoffs have been tough. … I was able to get the bounces that we needed tonight.”

    Jake Oettinger had 37 saves, two nights after the 24-year-old Stars goalie was pulled 7:10 into Game 3 after allowing three goals on five shots.

    The Stars had the man advantage in overtime after Brayden McNabb‘s high-sticking penalty on Ty Dellandrea. Fifty seconds into the power play, Pavelski scored on a pass from Miro Heiskanen. They won for the first time in their five OT games this postseason – Vegas won the first two games of this series past regulation.

    It was only the second Vegas penalty of the game, both high-sticking calls against McNabb. His penalty on Pavelski late in the first period set up the power play when Robertson scored his first goal with some nifty stickwork.

    Pavelski, in his 15th NHL season and still looking for his first Stanley Cup, scored his ninth goal in 12 games this postseason, but his first in five games. He has 73 career postseason goals – the most for U.S.-born players and the most among all active players.

    “He’s ageless. … I’ve seen that movie over and over again. Never gets old,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “He lives for those moments and he wants to be in those situations. Always has, and delivers almost every time.”

    Benn was suspended two games by the NHL on Wednesday for his cross-check with his stick landing near the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in the first two minutes of Game 3 on Tuesday night. Benn also will miss Game 5 on Saturday night in Las Vegas.

    William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault scored for Vegas. Adin Hill had his five-game winning streak snapped. He made 39 saves, including a game-saver with his extended left leg without about two minutes left in regulation on rookie Fredrik Olofsson’s swiping try in his first career playoff game.

    “Our effort wasn’t good enough. Closing a series is probably the hardest game in a series, right, so it just wasn’t good enough from our group,” Marchessault said. “It was still a one-goal game in overtime. It was right there for us.”

    Karlsson and Marchessault are among six of the original Vegas players still on the team from the inaugural 2017-18 season that ended with the Knights playing for the Stanley Cup, though they lost in five games to the Washington Capitals after winning the first game.

    Vegas missed a chance to complete a sweep, a night after the Florida Panthers finished off a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.

    Vegas took a 2-1 lead midway through the second period when Marchessault, after whacking his stick on the back of Ryan Suter in front of the net, scored on a pass between the Stars defenseman’s legs from McNabb, another original Golden Knight.

    Robertson’s tying goal late in that period came on a ricochet off the back board just seconds after he had another shot hit the post. That was the fourth goal of this series, and sixth in the playoffs, after this regular season becoming the first Dallas player with a 100-point season.

    On his first goal late in the first that tied it 1-1, Robertson deflected Heiskanen’s shot from just inside the blue line up into the air. As Hill was trying to secure the puck into his glove, Robertson knocked it free and then reached around and swiped the puck into the net with his stick parallel to the ice.

    With former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and wrestling great Ric Flair both in the building wearing Stars jerseys Dallas was avoided being swept in the playoffs for the first time since 2001 against St. Louis in the second round. This was the Stars’ 21st playoff series since then.

    The Golden Knights scored first again – though not like those three quick goals in Game 3 that led to the earliest exit ever for Oettinger.

    Karlsson pushed the puck up and skated to the front of the net after passing to Nicolas Roy, whose pass through traffic went off a Dallas stick before Reilly Smith got it just inside the right circle and took a shot. Karlsson’s deflection past Oettinger only 4:17 into the game was his eighth goal this postseason.

    “There were a lot of rush chances,” said Smith, also with Vegas since the beginning. “I don’t think we did a good enough job of making it difficult on them. So we get another opportunity in two days.”

    Tkachuk sends Panthers to Stanley Cup Final, after topping Hurricanes 4-3 for sweep

    panthers stanley cup final
    Sam Navarro/USA TODAY Sports

    SUNRISE, Fla. — Matthew Tkachuk delivered for Florida, again. Sergei Bobrovsky denied Carolina, again.

    The wait is over: After 27 years, the Florida Panthers – a hockey punchline no more – are again going to play for the game’s grandest prize.

    Tkachuk got his second goal of the game with 4.9 seconds left, lifting the Panthers past the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 and into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 after sweeping the Eastern Conference final.

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

    “This was pure joy,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.

    Bobrovsky stopped 36 shots to cap his stellar series – four games, four one-goal wins, three of them basically in sudden death, a .966 save percentage after stopping 174 of the 180 shots he faced. The first two wins were in overtime, and this one may as well have been.

    The Panthers scored 10 goals in the series, and Bobrovsky ensured those were all they needed. They were the No. 8 seed, the last team in, the longest of long shots – which is consistent with their history, after not winning a single 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 Cup. He’s four wins away.

    “It’s amazing,” Bobrovsky said. “We showed the resilience … and we’re lucky to have Chucky on our side. He knows how to score big goals.”

    NHL Senior Vice President Brian Jennings was the one tasked with presenting the Prince of Wales Trophy. After some photos, Aleksander Barkov – the captain who had two assists, one of them on the game-winner – grabbed it, and skated it away. Some teams touch it. Some don’t. A few of the Panthers did, but Barkov didn’t pass it around.

    That’ll wait for the big prize.

    “It’s hard to explain right now. Everything just happened so quick,” Barkov said. “It means a lot. It definitely does. … It hasn’t been easy and nobody said it’s going to be easy.”

    Added Tkachuk: “We earned that thing, and definitely didn’t do it the easy way. We earned it.”

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

    Jordan Staal – his brothers Eric and Marc play for the Panthers – took a tripping penalty with 57 seconds left in regulation, setting up the power-play that Tkachuk finished off after getting into the slot and beating Frederik Andersen to set off a wild celebration.

    “Eastern Conference champions,” Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “It’s really cool. No doubt about it. But you know, at the end of the day, we have our eyes on something different.”

    Toy rats – the Panthers’ tradition, a nod to the unwanted locker room guests from Florida’s old arena in 1996 – sailed down from the stands, and the goal needed to survive an official review. But the rats were picked up, the goal was deemed good, and 27 years of waiting was officially over 4.9 seconds later.

    Jesper Fast seemed like he might have saved the season for Carolina, getting a tying goal with 3:22 left in regulation. Paul Stastny and Teuvo Teravainen had the first two goals of the night for the Hurricanes, while Brady Skjei and Jordan Martinook each had two assists. Andersen stopped 21 shots.

    “Everyone’s going to say, ‘You got swept.’ That’s not what happened,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “I watched the game. I’m there. I’m cutting the games. We’re in the game. We didn’t lose four games. We got beat, but we were right there. This could have went the other way. It could have been four games the other way.”

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

    But Bob was his best. Tkachuk was clutch, over and over. And Florida is as close to a Cup as it has ever been; the Panthers were swept by Colorado in the 1996 final.

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

    Tkachuk made it 2-0 on the power play midway through the first. Carolina – a 113-point, division-championship-winning team in the regular season – made it 2-1 later in the first on Stastny’s goal, and Teravainen tied it early in the second.

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

    “It’s been unbelievable since July since I got here,” Tkachuk said. “And hopefully we can cap off this amazing year.”


    Panthers general manager Bill Zito was announced earlier Wednesday as a finalist for NHL GM of the year. … Tkachuk’s two goals gave him 21 points in the playoffs – extending his Florida single-season postseason record, which was 17 by Dave Lowry in 1996. … Slavin was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game after Bennett’s hit, with what the Hurricanes said was “an upper-body injury.” Slavin wobbled as he tried to get to his feet. … Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel – who has also been a regular at Miami Heat games during their playoff run this spring – banged the drum before the game. When done, without a mic to drop, he simply dropped the mallet instead.


    Tkachuk’s goal midway through the opening period put Florida up 2-0 – and marked the first time, in nearly 14 periods of play to that point, that a team had a two-goal lead in this series. Every bit of action came with the score tied or someone up by one in the first 272 minutes (including all the overtimes) of the series.