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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Panthers soaking in fun during playoff run, turn attention toward Golden Knights

Florida Panthers left wing Ryan Lomberg celebrates with teammates after scoring against Carolina Hurricanes goalie Frederik Andersen during the second period of Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise on May 24, 2023.  (Tribune News Service)
By Sam Sklar South Florida Sun-Sentinel

SUNRISE, Fla. – Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice has two basic rules for his team: work hard and have fun. It’s a bit cliché, something maybe a third-grade baseball coach tells his kids before a game.

In his first year with the players, Maurice believes they have achieved both of those measures. They ground through his rugged training camp soon after he was hired, then limped through the regular season and squeaked into the playoffs.

“I have more fun coming to the rink now than I ever have,” Maurice said after Wednesday’s practice.

That’s where the once-in-a-lifetime challenge of playing in the Stanley Cup Final comes in. It’s a fine mental balance between having loads of fun, while also focusing on the task at hand: winning the title.

Panthers players such as forwards Eric Staal, Patric Hornqvist and Carter Verhaeghe have hoisted the Cup. Though Hornqvist will not play in the Finals, all three of them can be guides for what the next four to seven games could entail. Then there are the many players, like defenseman Josh Mahura, who have yet to hold the NHL’s coveted trophy.

“It’s pretty crazy,” said Mahura, who was claimed off waivers from the Anaheim Ducks just three days before the season began. “From the start of the year until now, it’s been such a whirlwind.”

Of course, the conspicuous fun is tied to the winning.

The Panthers have been the best team in the league over the past month of the playoffs, losing just once in the past 12 games since going down 3-1 in the first series against the Boston Bruins.

“I think it’s great for the organization, great for the city to be in this position,” Mahura said. “It’s a lot of fun. We’re enjoying it. We talked about enjoying this run and enjoying every second of it, because that’s an important thing too, is to make sure we’re living in the moment. It’s been a lot of fun. Everyone’s soaking it in.”

“It’s about the players here. It truly is,” Maurice said. “I’m just having fun because they allow it. If they hadn’t worked hard, … it wouldn’t be that much fun,”

But with the team flying out to Las Vegas on Thursday, it’s officially time for the Panthers to button up. By the time the puck drops Saturday night for Game 1, the Panthers will have had 10 days of rest. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights, who advanced to the final with a Game 6 victory against the Stars on Monday night, still have a lengthy break until Saturday night, but only half as long as Florida.

Is 10 days off too long or too little? Maurice broke down the dynamic into two facets: challenges and opportunities.

“There’s a challenge to this,” Maurice said. “You have 10 days off. You can’t stay in that emotional environment that you are (in). And then the opportunity, we have some banged-up guys and we’re moving pretty good on the ice. So that’s the challenge and that’s the opportunity.

“We’ll take the rest because it gives us the best chance and legs. And if it takes us a while to get back into it, then we got to be able to hold water until we do.”

As for Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, the story of the playoffs since being inserted during the Boston series, Maurice has no concern the scorching hot-goaltender will have cooled off during the extended break.

“I’m not worried about him because he’s got this routine that it’s almost not related to what’s going on the schedule,” Maurice said. “Whether he’s playing 14 in a row like he did in March or we get 10 days off, he’s got his routine.”

Either way, the playoff beards will eventually be shaved off and Bobrovsky will have his hair cut soon. The Panthers are four wins away from the NHL’s highest peak, but so are the Golden Knights.

At the end, one dressing room will be having the celebration of their lives in either Las Vegas or South Florida. The other dressing room will be no fun at all.

“You never know when your next opportunity might come,” Verhaege said. “It’s kind of a good opportunity to seize the moment kind of thing.”