After runner-up finish last year, Panthers ‘not satisfied’ without winning Stanley Cup

SUNRISE, Fla. — Veteran forward Kyle Okposo parachuted onto the Panthers’ roster in March, about a month before Florida began its postseason journey back to the Stanley Cup Final. He played six regular-season games with the Panthers, but he quickly learned the team’s attitude.

“The expectations were laid out immediately,” Okposo said. “They were clear, they were concise, and there was no gray area. I knew what was expected, and that was phenomenal for me to hear.”

After reaching the Final and losing to Vegas last year, the Panthers are not just happy to be get back to the playoff’s final round.

This time, the Panthers intend to make a home for the Cup in Sunrise and clinch the franchise’s first NHL title. After making their way through rival Tampa in the opening round, beating Boston in a rough-and-tumble second round and getting past the President’s Trophy winner in New York in the conference final, the Panthers only have the Edmonton Oilers — who are seeking to win Canada’s first Stanley Cup since 1993 — in the way of their ultimate goal.

“We have a lot of guys who were here last year and went through that,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “I think we’re … expecting ourselves to be here. For us to be here right now is not surprising to any of us because we know how hard we’ve worked for this and how much we invested in this. Every single guy in our room, we know we wanted to be here and now we are here and now we want to take that next step.”

The road back to the Stanley Cup Final started after a devastating Game 5 in Las Vegas last year. After suffering the season-ending 9-3 blowout that clinched the title for the Golden Knights, Florida general manager Bill Zito went to work identifying where he could improve his team.

“Identifying the goals was easy,” Zito said. “We had some significant injuries to some of the defensemen. We knew we had to answer that. We wanted to maybe try to add some players in other areas. A lot of it is a function of who’s available and who wants to come, as well. That really was our focus: We have to find some D. We were fortunate that we had the right guys who wanted to come, and they fit in and they came at numbers that fit in our cap.”

The Panthers signed defensemen Niko Mikkola, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Dmitry Kulikov (a former Panther who played for the team from 2009-16). They also signed forwards Kevin Stenlund and Evan Rodrigues and traded for Steven Lorentz. During the season, they traded for Okposo and Vladimir Tarasenko to bolster their roster.

Florida showed it was a better team this time around during the season. After sneaking into the postseason as the No. 8 seed last year, they finished third in the Eastern Conference this year. They dispatched their playoff opponents one after another.

“I just think we have buy-in from everybody, contributions from everybody,” star left winger Matthew Tkachuk said. “We’re a deep team. We’re a very committed team. And a very relaxed team. Last year, we were kind of just riding that high and rode it all the way to the finals, whereas it’s just a very even-keeled, chill approach.”

Unlike 2023, Florida has not suffered any major injuries during their Cup Final run. Last year, Tkachuk suffered a broken sternum in the playoffs and missed the final game of the Stanley Cup Final. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad dealt with a broken foot, two shoulder dislocations and a torn oblique. Other players dealt with nagging injuries, as well.

Now, Panthers coach Paul Maurice says the team is healthy and ready for the final few games of the campaign.

“You can do whatever the heck you want in the summer,” Maurice said. “If you’re not healthy by the end, that’s not your team. We’ve come to the last round healthy, and that would be the biggest difference (from last year).”

When the time came to celebrate following their Game 6 win over the Rangers in the conference finals, the team acted like they had a bigger celebration ahead of them — and they purposely did not touch the Prince of Wales Trophy. The previous year the players touched the trophy, and the Panthers only managed one win in the Final series.

“I think it starts with training camp,” forward Sam Bennett said after the end of the Eastern Conference finals, “and the belief in this group that we weren’t going to be satisfied with just making it to the Cup finals. We put in a lot of hard work to get back here, and it took a lot. But we’re still not satisfied yet. We still have a job to do.”