Panthers play perfect second period, storm past Leafs to win Atlantic in season finale

The Florida Panthers went into the final day of their regular season Tuesday with a slim chance of winning the Atlantic Division, and those odds were even slimmer by the time the first period ended and they were down by two goals to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Yet at the same time, the door to an unlikely division title was opening up and the Panthers charged through it with their best period of the season. Florida scored four goals in a little more than 13 minutes, including the game-tying and go-ahead goals just 10 seconds apart, to beat the Maple Leafs, 5-2, and steal the Atlantic crown away from the Bruins in the last game of the regular season.

“It’s how you want to gear up for the playoffs,” center Sam Bennett said. “We finished strong. We played the right way.”

When they went into the locker room for the first intermission, the Panthers (52-24-6) were down 2-0 to Toronto (46-25-10) after recording just six shots in the opening period, seemingly content to cruise into the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs as the runners-up in the division, only Boston was, at the same time, leaving an opportunity for Florida.

At the same time the Panthers went into the intermission, the Bruins were down by two goals to the lowly Senators. Florida’s response was a blitz on the Maple Leafs.

Left wing Carter Verhaeghe scored just 28 seconds into the second period go cut Toronto’s lead to 2-1. With 9:28 left in the period, Sam Bennett tied the game at 2-2 and then fellow forward Sam Reinhart gave Florida a 3-2 lead just 10 seconds later. Finally, star defenseman Brandon Montour scored to push the Panthers lead to 4-2 with 6:18 left in the second. An empty-net goal by Reinhart with 2:20 left effectively locked up the division title for Florida.

In all, the Panthers outshot the Maple Leafs, 29-4, in the period, leaving the ice to a standing ovation from the 18,317 at Amerant Bank Arena.

“That’s probably the loudest I’ve ever been in a building,” said goaltender Anthony Stolarz, who finished the regular season as the league’s leader in goals against average.

Those fans were always going to be right back in the building this weekend to start Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs in Sunrise, but now they will be watching a rivalry showdown between Florida and the Lightning rather than a quick rematch with the Maple Leafs.

Florida entered Tuesday with just a 20.5 percent chance to win the division, according to All Boston had to do was beat Ottawa, one of the worst teams in the NHL, and the Panthers would settle for the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic and a first-round showdown with Toronto, in a rematch of a second-round series from the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Instead, the Bruins started slow and never recovered, Florida stormed from behind — with its backup goaltender in net and top-pairing defenseman Aaron Ekblad out with an injury, no less — and the Panthers will get a long-awaited shot at redemption against their fiercest rival.

“It’s a good way to go into the playoffs,” coach Paul Maurice said. “It’s not the win. It’s the style of hockey that you want to play. You say, OK, it’s there.”

Florida, which is headed to the Cup playoffs for the fourth straight year and went all the way to the 2023 Stanley Cup Final last year, began this unprecedented run of success with a series of gut-wrenching losses to Tampa Bay in 2021 and 2022.

In the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Lightning was the defending Stanley Cup champion and upset Florida in Round 1 on the way to a repeat. In the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Panthers were the Presidents’ Trophy winners and fresh off their first series win in since the 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs, and then Tampa Bay swept them out of the second round on its way to a third straight Stanley Cup Final.

Florida only has nine players left who were part of each of the first two legs of this in-state trilogy, but no one will have trouble getting excited for a showdown with the Lightning.

Of course, everyone understands the rivalry. More importantly, everyone knows what a win against Tampa Bay would mean.

“Tampa’s been the perennial team and the top team in the league for the last—not even since they won. Even before that, they’ve had probably the best teams,” Tkachuk said. “Hopefully, this is just a way for us to show that we’re one of those teams now and there’s just no better way for us to start this journey than to play Tampa first.”