Panthers Using Clear Identity to Push Maple Leafs to the Brink

Anything can happen in playoff hockey, and to this point of the 2023 NHL hunt for the Stanley Cup, the Florida Panthers are truly happening. Their series with the Toronto Maple Leafs surely headed South, fast, for the boys in blue, and now the Cats find themselves a win away from being in the Final Four.

A hot goalie can mask deep-seated issues, and once inserted into the lineup versus the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins, Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has, indeed, burnt the opposition. However, this year’s version of the Panthers seem to be playing with a supreme level of confidence that transcends a dialed-in goaltender.

Panthers Now Possess Hockey Swagger

That type of swagger – needed when the pressure is the highest – can most likely be traced to one person: Matthew Tkachuk. He brought a clear mindset change to the organization. This is the dimension that was missing from versions of the Panthers in the past. He possesses belief, and it exudes to the rest of the team.

Matthew Tkachuk, Florida Panthers
Matthew Tkachuk, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

No one could possibly predict what happened next – except for the Panthers themselves.

“As much as people say underdog … yes, we are a lower seed, but I don’t think anyone in our room thinks we can’t win on any given night,” said defenseman Brandon Montour to “We have full confidence in our group to be a great team.”

Montour tied a franchise record – held by Jason Garrison and Aaron Ekblad – with 16 goals from the back end.

Last year, when they had the best regular season record, they often staged late-game scrambles to tie and then eventually win games in overtime. Their television announcer, Steve Goldstein, often referred to that team as the Comeback Cats. This year, the Panthers almost failed to make the playoffs, but their team identity formed during the last few weeks of the season.

“It seems like we’ve been in the playoffs for a couple of months with regard to the urgency, the potential impact and getting it done or not,” General Manager Bill Zito said to FLA Hockey Now. “So for me, it’s been — I the guess the word resilience — is the guys’ ability to go from nine (points) out to consistently play every night. I guess the other word would be consistency, right? So to try to add consistency to the way you do things, not go up and down. That’s the most striking observation that I would have.”

Every game was pretty much do-or-die for the Panthers, and that has helped them handle the pressure differently than the version of the squad that got swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round last season.

Related: Panthers’ Barkov Not Doing Enough vs. Bruins in 2023 Playoffs

Montour was on the roster last year but sees some differences with the current iteration of the Panthers.

Brandon Montour Florida Panthers
Brandon Montour, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“It’s been really awesome to be part of this special group of players,” Montour said. “We have a great group of guys. Everyone enjoys each other, and we all want each other to be great.”

The Panthers now have a clear identity, which maximizes the talents of every player on the team. In fact, head coach Paul Maurice insists that his role has diminished as the playoffs have rolled on and thinks the players have galvanized around each other to form a strong sense of themselves.

“Six minutes before [the game] I’m not in there firing them up,” Maurice said to “It’s not my room anymore. The players run the room. They get themselves ready to play. They handle themselves on the bench. Yeah, I’ve got stuff I’ve got to do. I’ve got a job. But all the really funny stuff that goes on, all of the good stuff on those runs, the players take over the emotional depth of the room.”

Surely Maurice doesn’t want to take too much credit – as any good coach shouldn’t – but the Panthers’ management deserves some here. They identified and obtained the exact pieces to place on the ice, and there seems to be a noticeable commonality.

Related: Panthers Can Beat the Bruins If…

Every Panther is Essentially the Same Player

Look at some of the players that the Panthers have signed under contract. Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe, Sam Reinhart, Anton Lundell, Tkachuk, Anthony Duclair, Eetu Luostarinen, Nick Cousins, and Colin White – are all pretty much the same player. The advanced scouting breakdown for each of them could read exactly the same: hard-nosed forecheck style with speed, tenacity, young and fearless. Even their body type – height and weight – are similar.

It took some time and puck luck, but these parts finally became a cohesive team with some proper direction – even if their coach does not want to receive any praise for a job well done.

“I can tell you that the energy around the group is a little different. There’s a higher level of confidence and a higher level of understanding of exactly how hard this is, how much work it’s going to be,” Zito said to FLA Hockey Now. “How mercurial the experience can be — the highs and the lows and keeping it balanced. And it’s exciting. It’s really exciting.”

Zito, once a candidate for the Edmonton Oilers position, definitely has a type. He knows that every team that wins the Stanley Cup is essentially known with a unique identifier. The New York Islanders of the 80s played in a similar fashion to these Panthers. The Oilers played a wide-open game with boundless skill. A decade later, the New Jersey Devils were branded as a trap team.

The 2022-23 Florida Panthers finally found their clear identity, and it has helped them oust the best regular season team in the history of the NHL and has pushed a skilled Toronto team to the brink of elimination. This is a team built for the playoffs with players that function with a high level of determination because, well, essentially, they are a bunch of guys that don’t know any better. Sometimes, it’s that lack of knowing what can be achieved that drives a team to realize success.

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