The rubber rats were falling and a long-suffering hockey franchise was rising Wednesday night. And in a packed arena full of sonic joy, fans were partying like it was 1996.
The Florida Panthers are in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 27 years.
The club that has fallen short throughout its history is now four victories from winning its first-ever NHL championship.
Florida held off the desperate Carolina Hurricanes, 4-3, to win the Eastern Conference finals in a four-game sweep and waits now for likely opponent the Vegas Knights in a splendidly unconventional Final four. Hockey traditionalists might find it blasphemous that the Cup will be won by a city where you can’t go ice-fishing.
Ain’t it great!?
The Cats prevailed with maximum drama — Matthew Tkachuk scoring the winning goal on a power play 4.3 seconds before the end of regulation, after Carolina had tied it on Jesper Flat’s shot with only 3:22 to play.
And captain Aleksander Barkov skated off the ice holding the Eastern Conference championship trophy and dodging a slew of black rubber and plastic rats, the victory tradition that began in ‘96.
Ryan Lomberg had earlier scored his first goal of the postseason mid-second period for a 3-2 lead. He’d had an apparent game-winning overtime goal disallowed earlier in the playoffs, so this one felt a bit like justice.
The whole night did — this whole postseason has — for a franchise and fans waiting a long, long time for this, and for a No. 8- seed team that has stunned the sports world in morphing from underdogs to alpha dogs in a thoroughly unexpected and exquisitely timed crescendo.
The crowd in Sunrise serenaded “Bob-by, Bob-by” as goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky worked to protect the lead late, parrying enough fired at him to extinguish Carolina’s season.
The Heat took its own stab at an Eastern finals sweep in the NBA the night before a half-hour’s drive south in Miami, but failed and will take a 3-1 series lead into Boston Thursday night.
It was an exceptionally tight series for a sweep by the Cats, with all four games decided by one goal, two of them in overtime ... but one team winning them all.
In Boston, then Toronto, then Carolina, the Panthers richly earned their way into the Final by beating the teams with the first, second and fourth-best regular-seasons records — Boston’s the best in history.
Panther Brandon Montour had said after Wednesday’s morning skate he hoped Florida would “get on ‘em early and get our crowd loud.”
Done and done.
If you were in your seat a minute late at the rink you missed the Cats’ 1-0 lead. It came 41 seconds into the game when Anthony Duclair, in close, finished with a wrist shot what Carter Verhaeghe and Aleksander Barkov had started.
The crowd drowned out the blasting horn with sonic cheering amid a blizzard of white towels being waved.
It was 2-0 by mid-first on a power play goal by mouthguard-chewing Tkachuk, who with a snap shot deposited a puck that Canes goalie Frederik Andersen failed to contain with just seven seconds left with the man advantage. Aaron Ekblad and Gustav Forsling assisted.
But Carolina wasn’t quitting and drew within 2-1 later in the first on a wrist shot by Paul Stastny.
A skirmish behind the Carolina net in the waning seconds of the opening period found Tkachuk intentionally speared with a stick in a man’s most sensitive area, sending him crumpling to the ice. The perpetrator (if it doesn’t go without saying) was the Hurricanes’ dirty Brent Burns, who is to sportsmanship what Spam is to fine cuisine. Negligently, with four referees on the ice, none flagged Burns for a penalty.
The Canes tied it 2-2 just 2:51 into the second period on a Martin Necas shot after a Cats turnover. I’d pin both Carolina goals on Florida’s defense offering too much space more than blame Bobrovsky. It was strange, though, seeing Brick-Wall Bob temporary fallible after a spectacular run that should have him the league’s playoffs MVP.
The Panthers expect to face Vegas in the Final, with Sin City up 3-0 entering their Western finals Game 4 Thursday night at Dallas. (Teams up 3-0 have an historical 98 percent likelihood of advancing, as 201 of 205 teams previously ahead 3-0 in the playoffs have done — Florida the latest on Wednesday night.)
Based on premature betting odds already out, Florida would be a small underdog to Vegas but a slight favorite vs. Dallas should the Stars manage a miracle comeback.
Not that underdog status has meant anything to the Panthers this postseason.
It had been 26 years, 11 months and 24 days (but who’s counting?) since Florida last scored a victory that clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup Final on June 1, 1996. That one was in Pittsburgh.
This time Cats fans got to enjoy it.
One waved a sign that read, MAKE IT RAIN RATS!
©2023 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.