With rats and a sweep, Florida Panthers are in the Stanley Cup Final for first time since 1996 | Opinion

The rubber rats were falling and a long-suffering hockey franchise was rising Wednesday night. And in a packed arena full of sonic joy, fans were partying like it was 1996.

The Florida Panthers are in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 27 years.

The club that has fallen short throughout its history is now four victories from winning its first NHL championship.

Florida held off the desperate Carolina Hurricanes, 4-3, to win the Eastern Conference finals in a four-game sweep and waits now for likely opponent the Vegas Knights in a splendidly unconventional Final Four. Hockey traditionalists might find it blasphemous that the Cup will be won by a city where you can’t go ice-fishing.

Ain’t it great!?

The Cats prevailed with maximum drama — Matthew Tkachuk scoring the winning goal on a power play 4.9 seconds before the end of regulation, after Carolina had tied it on Jesper Flat’s shot with only 3:22 to play. Tkachuk’s 21 points set a Panthers playoff record, with at least four games still to play.

“He’s on a stage now,” said coach Paul Maurice of Tkachuk. “He is a gifted, gifted man.”

“I had just a ton of room and some time,” Tkachuk said of his hero’s goal. “It was fairly easy.”

Captain Aleksander Barkov, seated beside him, said, “The patience he had at the end there, not many of that.”

The two stars -- Barkov here 10 years and Tkachuk via a blockbuster trade last summer -- meshed instantly.

“We got him, I felt like we know each other for 10 years,” said Barkov. “It’s been an unreal addition. And off-ice, it’s eye-opening what a great person he is.”

Barkov skated off the ice holding the Eastern Conference championship trophy and dodging a slew of black rubber and plastic rats, the victory tradition that began in ‘96. Barkov, still only 27, is in his 10th season with Florida.

“This means a lot. It definitely does,” he said afterward. “But we all know another big series is coming up, so we can;t get too high.”

Maurice, the first-year Cats coach, said reaching the Stanley Cup Final is most special to the long-timers with the club.

“The best part of tonight is for all the people who’ve been here a long time that haven’t had the payoff,” he said. “Now they get a little bit of payoff.”

Maurice, 56, has been an NHL coach since 1995 and this will be his second Final in search of his first Stanley Cup. The Panthers honored a 106-year-old war veteran before the game. Maurice, in typical self-deprecating fashion, said, “[Bleeper]l looks better than I do!”

Ryan Lomberg had earlier scored his first goal of the postseason mid-second period for a 3-2 lead. He’d had an apparent game-winning overtime goal disallowed earlier in the playoffs, so this one felt a bit like justice.

The whole night did — this whole postseason has — for a franchise and fans waiting a long, long time for this, and for a No. 8 seed that has stunned the sports world in morphing from underdogs to alpha dogs in a thoroughly unexpected and exquisitely timed crescendo.

The crowd in Sunrise serenaded “Bob-by, Bob-by” as goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky worked to protect the lead late, parrying enough fired at him to extinguish Carolina’s season.

The Heat took its own stab at an Eastern finals sweep in the NBA the night before a half-hour’s drive south in Miami, but failed and will take a 3-1 series lead into Boston on Thursday night.

It was an exceptionally tight series for a sweep by the Cats, with all four games decided by one goal, two of them in overtime ... but one team winning them all.

In Boston, then Toronto, then Carolina, the Panthers richly earned their way into the Final by beating the teams with the first, second and fourth-best regular-seasons records — Boston’s the best in history.

Panther Brandon Montour had said after Wednesday’s morning skate he hoped Florida would “get on ‘em early and get our crowd loud.”

Done and done.

If you were in your seat a minute late at the rink you missed the Cats’ 1-0 lead. It came 41 seconds into the game when Anthony Duclair, in close, finished with a wrist shot what Carter Verhaeghe and Barkov had started.

The crowd drowned out the blasting horn with sonic cheering amid a blizzard of white towels being waved.

It was 2-0 by mid-first on a power play goal by mouthguard-chewing Tkachuk, who with a snap shot deposited a puck that Canes goalie Frederik Andersen failed to contain with just seven seconds left with the man advantage. Aaron Ekblad and Gustav Forsling assisted.

But Carolina wasn’t quitting and drew within 2-1 later in the first on a wrist shot by Paul Stastny.

A skirmish behind the Carolina net in the waning seconds of the opening period found Tkachuk intentionally speared with a stick in a man’s most sensitive area, sending him crumpling to the ice. The perpetrator (if it doesn’t go without saying) was the Hurricanes’ dirty Brent Burns, who is to sportsmanship what Spam is to fine cuisine. Negligently, with four referees on the ice, none flagged Burns for a penalty.

The Canes tied it 2-2 just 2:51 into the second period on a Martin Necas shot after a Cats’ turnover. I’d pin both Carolina goals on Florida’s defense offering too much space more than blame Bobrovsky. It was strange, though, seeing Brick-Wall Bob temporary fallible after a spectacular run that should have him the league’s playoffs MVP.

The Panthers expect to face Vegas in the Final, with Sin City up 3-0 entering their Western finals Game 4 Thursday night at Dallas. (Teams up 3-0 have an historical 98 percent likelihood of advancing, as 201 of 205 teams previously ahead 3-0 in the playoffs have done — Florida the latest on Wednesday night.)

Based on premature betting odds already out, Florida would be a small underdog to Vegas but a slight favorite vs. Dallas should the Stars manage a miracle comeback.

Not that underdog status has meant anything to the Panthers this postseason.

“I still think not many people, still, believe in us,” said Tkachuk. “It’s still that feeling of being the underdog and proving people wrong.”

Of the conference-title trophy, “We earned that thing!” Tkachuk said. “And we definitely didn’t do it the easy way.”

It had been 26 years, 11 months and 24 days (but who’s counting?) since Florida last scored a victory that clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup Final on June 1, 1996. That one was in Pittsburgh.

This time Cats fans got to enjoy it.

One waved a sign that read, MAKE IT RAIN RATS!