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The bold decision — beyond the Tkachuk deal — that helped push Panthers to the Stanley Cup

What happens when you take the NHL’s highest-scoring team, one that seizes on a free-flowing, attacking, throw-caution-to-the-wind style — and try to mold them into a more defensive-minded, less risk-taking group?

In the Florida Panthers’ case, growing pains initially, but smashing success ultimately.

That the Panthers have thrived with a new approach — now set to begin the Stanley Cup Finals on Saturday in Las Vegas (8 p.m., TNT) — is a testament to coach Paul Maurice’s resoluteness and conscientiousness in implementing his system, the players’ willingness to adapt their games and general manager Bill Zito’s bold trade that imported a gritty, rugged, highly skilled franchise player, Matthew Tkachuk, who seems supremely suited to this system.

“There were definitely points in the season that we would play really hard and almost for 10 minutes in the game, we would let up and get away from it, and ultimately that would be the deciding factor in the game,” forward Ryan Lomberg said this week.

“We’ve learned to accept [this new style] as our identity. That’s the only way we’re going to play. Paul has done a great job of making us adopt his system. I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s more beneficial and will take us farther than the previous ones.”

Even before the Panthers acquired Tkachuk from Calgary last summer, Maurice — upon his hiring — and Zito planned to move the Panthers away from a system that helped them lead the NHL in goals per game last season (at 4.1) but flopped against a stouter, more disciplined Tampa Bay team in the second round of the playoffs.

The master plan, which Maurice described at his introductory news conference, was to reduce risk with an approach that entailed making the extra pass and not leaving the team’s defense — and goaltender — as vulnerable.

“Truly confident offensive players cut the play off more often than you think,” Maurice said last July.

As the Panthers struggled simply to make the playoffs this season, did Maurice and the players ever wonder if they had the right personnel to play this style?

Lomberg and forward Sam Reinhart said it never reached that point, because, as Reinhart said, “we were all aware this style was needed this time of year.”

Maurice said “the question of this year was going to be how far along could we move them. Maybe we would find some players who just can’t [play this style].”

What was the habit built by the team in 2021-22 that was hardest to shake during this uneven regular season?

“Not for myself personally, but some guys may not be too OK with getting rid of the puck with the intention of getting it back,” Lomberg said. “In years prior, they would try to hold onto it and force a play versus cutting the play off themselves and unloading the puck somewhere where we could get possession back below their defenseman.

“Any type of skill player, goal scorer, never wants to get rid of the puck and you usually don’t want them to get rid of the puck. Especially this time of year, when you can really wear down a team, it’s important that everyone is buying into that and getting pucks deep with the intention of getting them back.”

The biggest adjustment, in Reinhart’s view, was getting “everyone [to] rely on each other more. It’s all about reading off each other, when to pressure, how to pressure. It’s a lot of covering for each other, and when there’s a breakdown, being in the right spots. As a winger, it’s almost easier for us. You’re able to read and react as opposed to trying to cover a mistake coming back to the net. That’s when you’re really in trouble.

“It certainly wasn’t easy throughout the whole year. But the buy-in has been there from the beginning. There are some situations when it gets tougher when the results aren’t there. When you start to get the results, your confidence grows. We have guys that were willing to change.”

Maurice appreciates that the players “didn’t fight me on it. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to do it. It is a very hard thing. It has to be reinforced every day.”

As NHL Network analytics expert Mike Kelly noted, the upshot was the Panthers led the league in goal differential off turnovers both in the regular season (plus-21) and playoffs so far (plus-10).

Maurice “didn’t want to put mud tires on a Ferrari, but the Panthers had to learn how to drive in the rain,” Kelly said. “Maurice taught the Panthers how to play a smarter game by minimizing risks while still… playing a fast, possession-based style. Give the puck a little bit more and work [your butt off] to get it back.

“Why? To prepare his team for the reality of playoff hockey where a one-dimensional attack, no matter how potent, can be shut down. Where players would force possession plays last year, they are making safer, smarter plays this year.”

As Maurice has noted, 85 percent of the game is played within three feet of the boards. The Panthers have become a much better team in those high-contact areas.

While Maurice began to implement the new system in training camp, further tinkering was needed at midseason, with the Panthers out of playoff position.

“The Panthers were built on stretching and the speed game,” Maurice said this week. “It can be really good except for the most part, the rush game starts to disappear in the playoffs. So you need another piece. The original piece wasn’t to take the stretch game out. It was to add a piece. We got part way through the year and I didn’t feel we were getting there fast enough so we pulled back on the two-man stretch quite a bit.”

Two-man stretches, in transition, come with higher reward, but also higher risk. “We still stretch but we don’t stretch the same way,” Maurice said.

While the Panthers are eighth in average goals per game in the playoffs at 3.1, they’re fifth in average goals allowed at 2.69. That’s a testament to the postseason excellence of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky but also to the Panthers’ attention to detail on defense.

All season, Maurice mixed tough love with encouragement in cajoling his group to execute his and Zito’s vision.

“He’s a great coach,” Lomberg said. “A trait of a great coach is to say the right thing at the right time. He’s somebody who does that very, very well. When we need a kick in the butt, whether we want it or not, he’s going to give it to us.

“When we think we may deserve a kick and he doesn’t think so, he’s not going to do it. He’s done a tremendous job of making sure we hear what we need to hear when we need to hear it.”

Erik Spoelstra, throughout the Heat’s playoff run, has mentioned the “beauty of the struggle.”

That was the case as the Panthers navigated learning a new system.

But “what we did learn,” Reinhart said, “is we are good enough.”