Cote: Florida Panthers return to Stanley Cup Final & earn rare place in Miami sports history | Opinion

The Florida Panthers heading to the Stanley Cup Final for a second consecutive season is worth celebrating and savoring not only because it is a franchise first, but because it is a rarity no matter the sport.

In South Florida’s 59 years as a player in major American professional sports, this marks only the third time one of our teams will have played for a championship two straight seasons.

The Miami Dolphins did it three straight times in 1971-73, winning two Super Bowls.

The Miami Heat did it four years in a row in 2011-14, winning two NBA Finals.

The Panthers have yet to lift a Stanley Cup -- but it could happen this month. It feels like it will.

The chance came Saturday inght with the 2-1 Game 6 home win that gave Florida a 4-2 series triumph over the New York Rangers in the NHL Eastern Conference Final.

That also made the Panthers the first team to lose a Stanley Cup Final and get back to the Final the next year since Pittsburgh in 2008-09. The Penguins won on the second try. The Cats aim to do the same.

“We were happy to be there last year,” said Panther Sam Bennett, who scored the first goal Saturday. “This year is all business. We have one goal in mind.”

The Prince of Wales trophy, given to the conference champ, was in the building, and the Cats wouldn’t let it go. Didn’t allow it to be shipped north for a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.

The Wales trophy is nice. But it isn’t the hardware they’re after.

Superstitiously, Panthers playeres would not even touch the conference-champs trophy during the on-ice ceremony postgame. (Nothing personal, Prince.) That was different than a year ago.

“We all agreed we’re not going to touch it,” said captain Aleksander Barkov.

“We’re not satisfied yet,” said Bennett.

Florida will have extra rest at it awaits who will be the West champ and its Final opponent starting June 8.

Edmonton leads Dallas 3-2 entering their Game 6 Sunday in western Canada. (The Panthers were 2-0 against both teams in the regular season, not scoring fewer than four goals in any of the four games.)

A scoreless first period was about to happen in Sunrise on Saturday until Bennett decided otherwise, scoring on a slap shot with 48.5 seconds left on a pass from Evan Rodrigues. The second-line production was yet another example of Florida’s depth and ability to beat you on any shift.

“Treat it as just another game” Bennett had said after Saturday’s morning skate. “No reason to grip our sticks (tight). It’s a normal day. No reasaon to be nervous. Business as usual.”

Florida got a sigh or breathing room -- and insurance it would need -- with 10:52 to play in the third period on Vladimir Tarasenko’s wrist shot in close.

The Ranger spoiled thre shutout on a goal with 1:39 to play on Artemi Panarin’s wrist shot.

Sergei Bobrovsksy spun a masterpiece and near-shutout as Florida’s defense withstood every ounce of desperation from a Rangers team fighting for its season’s life and watching hopes skate away from them.

Florida’s gem of a defensive performance underlined a main reason the Panthers are headed to the Final.

The Cats made a disappearing act of New York’s Big 3 scoring punch of Panarin, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. That trio combined for 114 goals and 267 points in the regular season. In this series’ six games they combined for two goals and eight points.

There were far fewer blue Rangers jerseys in the crowd Saturday than there had been the previous game, and they had little to cheer.

Florida’s 26th sellout crowd of the season enabled the club to set a franchise record for season attendance.

New York, dreaming of its first Stanley Cup in 30 years, instead heads into its offseason with five losses in its last six regulation games this postseason.

The victory made Florida 17-5 in one-goal games over the past two postseasons.

The Rangers had been an astounding 43-1 this season when allowing two goals or fewer. Make it 43-2.

Hockey traditionalists and the TV networks undoubtedly won’t like the Panthers going back to the Final instead of New York, but it shouldn’t be a big surprise.

Florida was the series betting favorite despite the Rangers having won the Presidents Trophy with the league’s best record.

Also, well, the state of Florida owns hockey at the moment.

It’s like Antarctica leading the world in suntanning, we grant you.

Sorry, Original Six. Sorry, places with snow and winters where water actually turns to ice. (No, seriously. That happens.)

In Florida, we just had the hottest May in our history. Lay down outside down here, crack an egg on your forehead and enjoy it in 30 seconds. (If you don’t like a runny yolk, maybe give it closer to a minute.)

Yet Florida, of all places,. made history on Saturday night by becoming the first U.S. state or Canadian province to host an NHL game in June for a fourth straight year.

With more coming.

“Nothing better than playing hockey in June,” said Matthew Tkachuk. “We are not done yet. It’s a different feeling this year for sure. We expected this. And the job’s not finished.”