The Panthers are back in the Stanley Cup Final after losing in the title round last year

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Panthers Beat Lightning 3-2 In OT
Florida Panthers players celebrate after beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 during an overtime period of Game 2 of the first-round of an NHL Stanley Cup Playoff series, Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The 2023 Stanley Cup Final had just ended, the Vegas Golden Knights were celebrating their championship and a heartbroken bunch of Florida Panthers were taking off their skates for the final time that season.

In that moment, standing in the locker room, Aaron Ekblad made a vow.

“We’ll find a way to come back next year,” the veteran defenseman said.

Look, it’s not exactly uncommon for some semblance of that to be said by the team that gets a championship shot and falls short. But these Panthers actually delivered on that promise — a rarity in hockey. Florida is back in the Stanley Cup Final, becoming just the second team in the last 40 years to lose in hockey’s title round one season and return the following season.

The Panthers won their second consecutive Eastern Conference title on Saturday night, topping the New York Rangers 2-1 to win that series in six games. The most recent team to lose the Cup final one season and return the next was Pittsburgh, the Sidney Crosby-led team that lost to Detroit in 2008 and beat the Red Wings in 2009. Before that, it was 1983 and 1984, when Edmonton lost to the New York Islanders one year and then topped them in five games the next for Wayne Gretzky’s first Cup.

“Just a lot of motivation, dedication, commitment,” Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk said. “The right pieces were added. Some great pieces added. Just one mindset: to do whatever you can to get back to it. And I thought the guys that were here last year have done an unbelievable job, coming back for the start of camp with this on their minds. So, we are not done yet.”

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final is Saturday; if Florida plays Edmonton, the Panthers will play host for the opener, and if Florida plays Dallas it’ll be the Stars with home-ice advantage.

Florida’s top 10 scorers from last season all remain with the Panthers, and big moves were made after losing to Vegas as well. Florida added a trio of defensemen — Oliver Ekman-Larsson, former Panthers player Dmitry Kulikov and Niko Mikkola, all of whom played big roles throughout the season. Kevin Stenlund was added to bolster the forward corps, and Cup winner Vladimir Tarasenko came to Florida in a late-season trade. Tarasenko scored the series-clinching goal against the Rangers.

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“If you make it to the final, I don’t know how many teams actually get better the next year because you’re usually paying a bunch of guys because they got to the final and the salary cap changes and you’re going to lose some guys,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “Our hockey team got better from last year to this year. We had good men last year and I still love that year and I’ll love that year separately and differently than any other year that I’ve coached. But we got better.”

The scenario — losing in the title round one year, going that far again the next — is seen far more regularly in other major sports than in the NHL.

In the NBA, the runner-up one year has made the finals the next season 26 times in 77 years, winning 14.

Baseball has seen the World Series loser return to the next Fall Classic on 29 occasions in the last 120 years, three of those — Kansas City in 2014 and 2015, the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017 and 2018, and Houston in 2021 and 2022 — coming in the last decade.

In the NFL, the Super Bowl loser has played in the next Super Bowl eight times, going 3-5. The last time it happened: New England, which lost Super Bowl 52 to Philadelphia and won the next year against the Los Angeles Rams.

It has happened 21 other times in the NHL, but in fairness, most of those instances were in a very different NHL. When the Rangers did it in 1932 and 1933, there were nine teams. When St. Louis did it in 1969 and 1970, there were 12 teams. In the more than half-century that has followed, it’s happened only four times in the NHL: Boston lost in back-to-back finals in 1977 and 1978, then Edmonton, then Pittsburgh and now Florida gets its chance.

“I think it just comes down to our heart and our will,” Panthers forward Sam Bennett said. “We want it bad, and it’s one thing to say you want it but to actually go out there and prove that every single night with how hard you’re going to work is a different story. We want it bad.”