LAS VEGAS — Even after a blowout six-goal loss in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Florida Panthers still maintain they are on the verge of something big.
“It’s huge. There’s no stopping now,” Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “There’s no stopping here. A bump in the road, and it’s going to sting. It stings now. But we’ll find a way to come back next year and be stronger because of it.”
For the Panthers, just winning Game 3 against the Golden Knights saw them go further than the 1995-96 team that became the first in franchise history to reach the Cup Final before being swept in four games.
Ekblad wasn’t the only person who walked the line between the immediate disappointment of losing in a Cup Final, and what appears to be a promising future.
Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who has been with the club for four seasons, talked about the progress that’s been made over the last few years. He reflected on how last season’s team became the first since that 1995-96 squad to win a playoff round before ultimately losing in the second round to in-state rival Tampa Bay.
“This year, we won three rounds,” Bobrovsky said. “So, we’re building. We are getting there, and we are excited. Next season, we’re going to have another opportunity, and I am excited for that.”
Florida is expected to have 16 players who are at least under contract for next season. It’s a group that includes core members such as Aleksander Barkov, Brandon Montour, Matthew Tkachuk, Bobrovsky and Ekblad, among others. But there are also pending unrestricted free agents — Radko Gudas, Alex Lyon and Marc Staal.
CapFriendly projects the Panthers will have a little more than $10 million in available cap space that general manager Bill Zito and his front office staff can use to address their roster in the offseason.
Between their cap situation and the collective optimism shared by players, it appears Florida could have everything needed to at least be in the postseason hunt next season.
And while Panthers coach Paul Maurice was emotional when talking about how much his team “gave me a great year of my life,” he was also quick to address how returning to the playoffs will not be easy.
“We’re going to have a hell of a time making the playoffs next year. That’s a fact,” Maurice said. “Because it’s hard. There’s good teams (that) miss. You come in feeling better about yourself because you played two months longer? You’re in trouble. As soon as you learn to love the hard, we’re going to have some players in that locker room who will be on our roster, but they will not be in our opening night lineup. We’re probably talking two or three months. I’ve got some guys that are going to take four to six months to heal.”
Although he did not specifically name the players who could be out for those extended periods, Maurice did say that Tkachuk missed Game 5 after fracturing his sternum in Game 3 and was “one of four guys with broken bones.”
Panthers feel sting of loss but say they’ll come back stronger