Panthers are one win from Stanley Cup Finals return but have ‘business to take care of’ first

The Florida Panthers are on the cusp of accomplishing something the NHL hasn’t seen in 15 years.

With one more win in the Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers — be it Game 6 on Saturday at Amerant Bank Arena or a winner-take-all Game 7 on Monday at Madison Square Garden — the Panthers will find themselves back in the Stanley Cup Finals a year after losing in the final round of the playoffs.

The last team to do that was the Pittsburgh Penguins, who lost in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and came back to win it in 2009.

But even though that accomplishment is just one win away, the Panthers aren’t focusing that far ahead.

The priority remains on the team in front of them in the Rangers.

“I don’t think we’ve thought about it at all,” Panthers forward Sam Bennett said. “Our approach is one game at a time. We’ve got business to take care of still. All that we’re thinking about is Game 6 at home. Our entire focus is on that game right now.”

The Panthers understandably know not to overlook the Rangers, especially with the way this series has gone so far. Three of the games have gone to overtime. Four were either tied or within one goal either way entering the third period.

It’s a similar experience to what Florida had in the Eastern Conference final last season when it swept the Carolina Hurricanes in four games all decided by one goal, including a pair of overtime winners.

“We have the experience of what it’s like to be on the bench and down 1 or even,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “If you go back to that Carolina series last year, we won four straight and they were all tight. It’s very very similar [to this series] at least in my standing behind the bench and going ‘whew, that was close.’”

Game 5 was more of the same.

Florida and New York were tied 1-1 going into the third, with the Rangers scoring on a Chris Kreider shorthanded goal early in the second period and Florida responding with a Gustav Forsling backhanded shot midway through the frame.

It wasn’t until 10:22 into the third period that the Panthers got their first lead on an Anton Lundell wrist shot from the left circle. A Bennett empty-net goal gave Florida a needed two-goal cushion to offset the Rangers’ final desperate attempt to rally. Alexis Lafreniere cut Florida’s lead to one goal with 50 seconds left before the Panthers ran out the rest of the clock to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series.

“We’re not done,” Forsling said. “We’re just taking it one game at a time. It’s easy to say but that’s what we try to do — not get ahead of ourselves. It’s still a great, great team over there that can turn this around so we want to shut them down right away.”

The Panthers have been able to tap into their experience from last year to help them keep their tunnel vision this year and not let the moment get too big as they get closer to returning to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The experience from their first-round series against Boston in particular is critical in this regard. Once they went down 3-1 in that series, they had to adopt that one-game-at-a-time mentality to eventually rally back and win the series in seven games. They have stayed true to that mind-set ever since.

“Just to know the grind and how hard it is, how much it takes to have success to make it this far, it takes a lot,” Bennett said. “I think we learned a lot last year. We made some mistakes. We’ve just grown as a group. I think we’ve seen even more leadership from the entire group.”

That has them one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup Finals.

But for now, their attention is fully on what will happen on Saturday.

”When the game comes, you think about the game,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “That’s all we can do right now. We don’t want to think about that too much.”

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