How the Florida Panthers became the NHL's playoff bad boys

P.K. Subban: 'No question' Jacob Trouba should have received major (0:43)

P.K. Subban reacts to Jacob Trouba's elbowing penalty in the second period vs. the Rangers. (0:43)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Like their namesake mascot, the Florida Panthers are a rare breed.

The Panthers are physical and feisty. Skilled and speedy. As likely to outscore as outhit an opponent -- perhaps in the same game.

Florida can be an all-around overachiever. The team has top-tier talent -- on both sides of the puck -- with a killer instinct. It's an enviable combination, one the Panthers used to separate from the pack these past 12 months. But Florida wasn't always so self-assured.

There were years when the Panthers were an afterthought -- a warm-weather novelty. But over time, Florida rewrote the narrative and grew into a team with powerhouse potential.

But there was still something missing: those key ingredients to take the Panthers from one-and-done playoff runs to perennial Stanley Cup contenders.

It didn't happen overnight. The changes were deliberate and calculated. And what has come out of them is the Florida bruisers we see now, entrenched in a second consecutive Eastern Conference finals bout, with an eye on making another Cup Final appearance -- if they can vanquish the New York Rangers, who currently lead their best-of-seven 2-1.

This is the first time Florida has trailed in a postseason series this spring, after vanquishing the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins in five and six games, respectively. And they had a specific rhythm in those matchups: frustrating, free-flowing and full of finesse.

Florida is annoyingly incapable of being rattled. That's the Bad Boy Panthers at their best.

It has worked to this stage. Channeling that same energy likely is the formula to get Florida back on the right side of its battle with the Rangers.

STANLEY CUP WINNERS aren't built in a day. Neither was this version of the Panthers.

It was late May 2022 and Florida was skating the most gut-wrenching handshake line in franchise history.

The Panthers had compiled a 122-point regular season to earn the Presidents' Trophy as the club with the best regular-season record. They were supposed to be Cup contenders. Instead, they'd been swept out of a second-round series by their in-state rival (and recent two-time Cup champion) Tampa Bay Lightning.

That ending hit Florida hard. The Panthers' lineup was filled with talented skaters, led by Jonathan Huberdeau and his 115-point campaign in the 2021-22 regular season, meant to carry them to a proverbial next level. Huberdeau went dead-quiet in the playoffs though, producing one goal and five points in 10 games -- and adding just two helpers against the Lightning.

Florida seemed to be spinning its wheels. Despite earning regular-season success, the Panthers hadn't advanced past the second round in a playoff series since losing in the 1996 Stanley Cup Final. Heck, the Panthers had made only six postseason appearances total since that defeat.

Florida needed a shift. It went with something seismic.

It was late July 2022, nearly two months to the day since Florida's playoff loss. The Panthers had already parted ways with interim head coach Andrew Brunette and brought in veteran bench boss Paul Maurice. Change was underway.

And then came the believe-it-or-not headline: Huberdeau -- along with defenseman MacKenzie Weegar -- had been traded by Florida to Calgary for Matthew Tkachuk, who was also signed to an eight-year extension worth $9.5 million per season.

The Panthers moving on from Huberdeau was unexpected, but entirely intriguing. It's not often a team trades its silky-smooth leading scorer after the most productive campaign of his career, and even less common to target a "pest" like Tkachuk in return.

But Tkachuk was more than just the Flames' agitating playmaker; he was also coming off a career-best season with 42 goals and 102 points. The swap signaled Florida was ready for a redo, taking its first step toward crafting an identity that, once defined and embraced, could propel the Panthers farther than they'd been in 25 years.

THERE'S SOMETHING ASPIRATIONAL about how Florida plays the game. Something special.

Boston Bruins forward James van Riemsdyk saw it firsthand in the Bruins' second-round playoff series, when the Panthers sent Boston packing for the second year in a row. Florida managed to out-Bruin the Bruins with snarl, sass and skill. The gut punch proved fatal for Boston's postseason hopes, a harsh reality for van Riemsdyk to revisit while also respecting how the Panthers put up such a fight.

"They have a lot of good players, but there's that certain extra level of ... I don't know if nastiness is the right word, but just that competitive sort of spirit," van Riemsdyk said. "A lot of those guys have that as one of their top attributes, that sort of in-your-face style that they play. They're a physical team and can be an agitating team because of being in your face and under your skin. That, combined with all the skill and the skating levels and hockey sense these guys have, it's the key combination with their group."

That wasn't always Florida's calling card. The trade for Tkachuk seemed to let the Panthers pivot. Not that their results were seamless immediately.

Florida started poorly in Tkachuk's first season. At the 2023 All-Star break, the Panthers weren't even in a playoff position. Florida clawed its way out of the Atlantic Division dregs from there though to reach the postseason as the Eastern Conference's final seed.

The Panthers took that designation personally.

Florida rallied to knock off the Presidents' Trophy-winning Bruins in their first-round series, breezed past the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round, swept the Carolina Hurricanes in the conference finals -- and then ran out of gas against the Vegas Golden Knights in a disheartening Cup Final loss.

That experience set the table for Florida's next chapter. The Panthers were more "big dog" than underdog in 2023-24, finishing atop the Atlantic standings with a 110-point effort. Tkachuk was Florida's second-leading scorer (with 26 goals and 88 points in 80 games) to go with the team's third-most penalty minutes (88).

The only Panthers regular ahead of Tkachuk in that category? Sam Bennett. He and Tkachuk are cut from the same cloth: Bennett contributed 20 goals and 41 points through 69 games, with 100 penalty minutes to boot. In the postseason, both skaters have been invaluable -- Tkachuk paces the Panthers with 18 points, while Bennett has three goals and six points. Overall, Florida has also doled out the most hits (632) and collected the most penalty minutes (191). Yet here they are standing strong with an opportunity to make repeat Cup Final visits.

If the Panthers' particular brand of circus needs its ringleaders, then Tkachuk and Bennett fit the bill.

"[Bennett] plays a style that is maybe the prototypical Florida Panther identity," Maurice said. "The way we like to play, he embodies that. And then there's what it does for the rest of the lineup."

Maurice's assessment rings true. Just ask the guys who play against Bennett and Tkachuk at this most critical, heightened time of year.

"It's that unicorn type of player that can be comfortable playing those multiple styles," van Riemsdyk said. "A bunch of guys on their team would qualify to be put in the category like that. You point to a guy like Matthew Tkachuk. He's only been there for now, what, two seasons? And they've had a great deal of playoff games, won a lot of playoff rounds, so it's easy to point to him [as a spark].

"Sam Bennett has a lot of those characteristics [too]. It's just that good mix of having some of that [extra] stuff in their games, but they're also guys who can play and do it all. And those guys are built for that playoff style. It's hard to play against and what makes them so successful [as a team]."

Florida lost Bennett briefly in the playoffs when he was injured in Game 2 of the Panthers' first-round series against Tampa Bay. He was unavailable until Game 3 against Boston, and Maurice noted prior to the Eastern Conference finals how Tkachuk's evolution -- from nuisance to nuanced -- has made the winger more dangerous.

"He's been outstanding," Maurice said of Tkachuk. "We lost Sam Bennett ... and that's when not only did [Tkachuk] step up [playing] with Anton Lundell, but he was also leading the [team]."

Maurice said Tkachuk has grown into a leadership role, notably since the start of the season.

"He was more disciplined; he's matured with this group over two years," Maurice said. "I would never bet against him coming up with some heroics, but it's certainly not the only thing we have to expect from him now."

Florida has followed Tkachuk's lead. The Panthers aren't concerned with propriety or being well-liked; they've learned how to toe the line while staying on the right side of NHL law, even if the opposition doesn't always agree with the calls -- or lack thereof.

That was on display in the Boston series when Bennett -- in his Game 3 return -- smashed into Brad Marchand and caused an upper-body injury that held Marchand out until Game 6. There was no penalty on the play, and Marchand said he thought Bennett "got away with a shot" on the interaction.

Bennett drew the Bruins' ire again in Game 4 when he shoved Charlie Coyle into goaltender Jeremy Swayman and then scored a power-play goal that tied the game for Florida (and the Panthers went on to win, 3-2).

Sam Bennett evens score with clutch power-play goal

Sam Bennett takes advantage on the power play and nets a huge goal for the Panthers to even the score against the Bruins.

If Florida has a certain swagger, it's coming from the bad boy personas who aren't concerned about reputation, only setting the tone. It's no coincidence Brandon Montour was also mixing it up with Marchand in that series via a memorable licking motion. Or that Dmitry Kulikov was spotted in a heavily memed "dance" with Bruins forward Justin Brazeau in Game 2, when Florida and Boston racked up a total of 148 penalty minutes and 146 hits. That's just another day at the office for these Panthers.

"Their team really feeds off of that, when they get guys that drag other guys on the team into that type of [physical] game," van Riemsdyk said. "I think they do a good job of sticking together within that, and everyone starts to play that style where it's very much hit-or-be-hit. Even guys who have played a long time in the league, who are there for their first year or two, that stuff rubs off on them too. And obviously the last couple of years they've been successful in the playoffs by sticking to that formula."

FLORIDA DIDN'T FIND its secret sauce by accident. There was a method to the madness, a process of trial and error bleeding into their eventual emergence from one season to the next as, ideally, a team better suited to achieving the ultimate success.

"The word that popped in my head is last year was a wilder group, and I mean that on the ice," Maurice said. "It was so much energy. We still have it. But I guess the better way to describe this group is they're a more focused group; they're not quite as funny. They don't appreciate my humor quite as much. Because they're like, 'Get on with it. Get to the important stuff.'

"They're very focused on hockey, and that was true right through [the season]. A little more serious. Last year's team needed to be a little wilder or a little bit more on edge. But this team is deeper and is far more disciplined on the ice than last year's team."

Gustav Forsling would agree. The Panthers defenseman has been sensational in the postseason, collecting three goals and nine points in 14 games while averaging over 23 minutes per game.

He had a critical goal for the Panthers in Game 3 against the Rangers, sending a tying marker past Igor Shesterkin in the third period to trigger overtime. Florida then lost in the extra frame when Alex Wennberg beat Sergei Bobrovsky with the game winner.

That put the Panthers behind in a series for the first time in these playoffs. Getting back on track means challenging Shesterkin more in front of the net -- without getting in penalty trouble. Forsling is confident Florida's evolution will allow them to execute with the right balance.

"You've got to play a little bit on the line, and I think we've been very good and successful being on the right side of it compared to last year," Forsling said. "I think it punished us a little bit last year, took a few too many penalties, but this year we've been [better] with that."

The Panthers have also been able to keep the postseason swings in perspective. Outside criticism doesn't affect the team's confidence. There's little chance any internal doubt will seep in or push Florida away from what they know offers an edge.

"We're prepared to make this a hard series for seven games," Bennett said. "That was our mindset right from the beginning. It's a fine line in the playoffs. You're trying to be as physical as possible, but there's a line, and you're trying your best not to cross that line and toe [it] for the whole series. I think we've done a pretty good job with that. But we can always improve on that, as well."

What made Florida's loss in Game 3 so frustrating was that they put on a dominant performance. The Panthers outshot New York 37-23, held a 108-43 advantage in shot attempts and came back from a 4-2 deficit in the third. In many ways, Florida did everything right. But the outcome was wrong, so the Panthers were back the next day asking questions on how to improve -- with answers easily accessible based on how they've prevailed in the postseason so far.

"Sometimes you're just looking for a certain attitude," Maurice said. "Where can we get better? Where can we turn that into a win? That's the coach's job, to make them walk out of the room certain of how to win. That growl, [it's] just there's nothing casual. We [should] be wired and ready to go in that room, the intensity level would be pretty high, and we make sure they're certain about what we're doing."

Even the best plan can't guarantee success, though. The Rangers are a formidable, impressive and dynamic opponent capable of overcoming their own flaws and finding success on the toughest nights. The Panthers' urgency must absolutely be on display from puck drop for Game 4 on Tuesday.

Heading back to New York with a split is what matters. Florida just needs the right road map to get there.

"Definitely [a tough team] when they play to their strengths within the way that they're built," van Riemsdyk said. "They have some high-end players at a lot of the key positions, and they have a lot of depth. We see a lot of different guys contributing for them. That's why it seems like they're definitely a team that's built for the playoff-style game."