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Panthers’ run to Cup Final is so crazy even they can’t believe it. ‘Simply, you couldn’t’

Aaron Ekblad can admit it now: He thought his Florida Panthers were toast.

It was the middle of the winter and the Panthers were staring at a brutal January, with 13 games in 23 days, nine of them on the road and a long way to go just to climb out of a nine-point and make the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs. Something like what happened Wednesday — with Matthew Tkachuk scoring with 4.9 seconds left in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals to beat the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-3, for a 4-0 sweep and spot in the Stanley Cup Finals — was impossible to imagine. Ekblad fessed up to as much when asked bluntly whether he could have ever pictured these Panthers, in their darkest moments, getting all the way the Cup Finals for the first time since 1996.

“No,” the star defenseman said Wednesday, offering up a one-word answer and letting it linger for a few moments before elaborating. “Simply, you couldn’t.”

Tkachuk’s goal with 4.9 seconds left sends Panthers to first Stanley Cup Final since 1996

After Christmas, Florida was nine points out of a postseason spot. Even with eight games left in the regular season, the Panthers were three points out and then they were less than a minute away from elimination in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, down by a goal in Game 7 before shocking the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins in overtime.

There were injuries and illnesses, massive changes and baffling losses.

It all nearly doomed Florida. In the end, it pushed the Panthers to the brink of a Stanley Cup.

“It’s hard, man,” Ekblad said. “The ebbs and flows of a hockey season are much harder on us than it is anybody else. It’s the ups and downs, the injuries, the sadness that you can get form this sport is unexplainable, so to have a chance and an opportunity like this, and to have that feeling is just really cool.”

Florida had a losing record as recently as March after its decision to trade star left wing Jonathan Huberdeau and star defenseman MacKenzie Weegar for Tkachuk, and hire coach Paul Maurice to replace former interim coach Andrew Brunette left them in search of an identity for more than half the season. Ekblad missed 11 games in the regular season due to another injury — his third in three years — and All-Star center Aleksander Barkov missed 14, many of them because of a bout with pneumonia. The Panthers had three different goaltenders start at least 15 games.

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

Sergei Bobrovsky, now the favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy with a .935 save percentage, wasn’t even starting for Florida at the start of the Cup playoffs after losing the job to fellow goaltender Alex Lyon — with his 39 games of NHL experience — in the last month of the regular season.

“We go through lots of thing, lots of adversity,” the star goaltender said Wednesday. “In January or in December, we were down, nine points out of the playoffs. We went through lots of things and I’m really appreciative of it.”

The Panthers’ chances to make the playoffs were as low as 17 percent in January, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Now, as the first team to make the Finals, they entered Thursday as the favorite to win their first Cup, according to MoneyPuck.com.

“I would say I believed, but maybe not like truly,” forward Anton Lundell said Wednesday. “You have dreams, but you have small goals. ... If somebody would’ve said in the start of January that we were going to be here, that’d be crazy to hear.”