Florida Panthers center Anton Lundell (15) shoots as New York Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba (8) defends during the second period of Game 6 in the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
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The Prince of Wales Trophy was carried onto the ice when time expired, as an arena filled with Florida Panthers fans roared in delight and dozens of players and staffers rushed over to pose with the prize.

Last year, the Panthers defied tradition and touched the trophy.

This year, they didn’t. The message was clear. The Stanley Cup is the only one they want.

For the second straight year, they have a chance at hockey’s greatest prize. Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 23 shots, Sam Bennett and Vladimir Tarasenko scored, and the Florida Panthers are headed to the Stanley Cup Final once again after beating the New York Rangers 2-1 on Saturday night.

“We touched it last year and it didn’t work for us,” Bennett said of ignoring the trophy, the one presented to the Eastern Conference champions. “So, we thought we’d try something different this year.”

The Panthers — who lost the Cup final to Vegas last year — won the East title series in six games. Florida will face either Edmonton or Dallas for the Cup, that series set to start on June 8.

Artemi Panarin scored with 1:40 left and Igor Shesterkin stopped 32 shots for the Rangers, who had a 2-1 lead in the series — then lost three straight, costing them their season. It was New York’s longest losing streak since mid-January and means that, for the 11th consecutive year, the team that finishes with the NHL’s best regular season record won’t go on to win the Stanley Cup.

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“Listen, our guys fought this year,” Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said. “They bought in right from the start. It’s disappointing; when you start something like this you don’t do it to get three wins in the playoffs or five wins in the playoffs. You do it to go the whole way.”

If Edmonton — which leads the West final 3-2 — advances, Game 1 of the title round will be on Florida’s ice. If Dallas wins the West, the Stars will have home-ice advantage for the title series. The Oilers can clinch that series on Sunday night.

Florida will play for the Stanley Cup for the third time. The Panthers were swept by Colorado in 1996 and lost 4-1 to Vegas last season. It’s also the third time in the final for Panthers coach Paul Maurice, who lost with Carolina in 2002 and then with Florida last year.

Maybe the third time is the charm for them both.

“My enjoyment of the game — and this is new for me — comes from my understanding that I’m really not that important here,” said Maurice, who, at 57, is bidding to be the second-oldest coach to ever win his first Stanley Cup; Bruce Cassidy was 58 when Vegas gave him his first title last year. “And I mean that. There’s a great line, ‘Don’t be so humble, you’re not that good.’ It’s the players. And when they’re going, they don’t need me.”

Florida’s win meant it has now been five consecutive seasons that a team from the Sunshine State won the Eastern Conference; Tampa Bay won the Prince of Wales Trophy in 2020, 2021 and 2022, and now Florida has gone back-to-back. The Panthers also are now the 15th active NHL franchise to make the Stanley Cup Final in consecutive seasons.

The Panthers also ousted the regular season’s best team — the Presidents’ Trophy winner — for the second consecutive year. Last season, Florida stunned Boston in Round 1, winning Game 7 on the road. This time, it was the Rangers who fell to Florida, which became the first franchise to eliminate the No. 1 overall seed in consecutive years since Pittsburgh did it to Washington in 2016 and 2017.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Rangers center Mika Zibanejad said. “I thought we tried to throw everything we had. It just wasn’t enough today.”

And for Bobrovsky, taking down No. 1 is evidently his thing.

He was in net to beat the top overall seed for the third time in six years — the Rangers this year, the Bruins last year and Tampa Bay when he was in Columbus in 2019.

“We were right there,” Rangers captain Jacob Trouba said. “We just came up short.”

Bennett opened the scoring in the final minute of the first period, sending the puck to Evan Rodrigues, getting it back and one-timing a shot over Shesterkin’s glove into the upper right corner of the net. It was the third straight game with a goal for Bennett, matching his longest streak of the season and marking the first time he’s had such a run in a postseason.

Bennett had a takeaway near the blue line with about five minutes left in the second period that created a great chance, one that had Matthew Tkachuk skating down the slot with only Shesterkin in front of him. Shesterkin made a toe save, though Tkachuk didn’t get much on the shot since Rangers defenseman K’Andre Miller swung from behind and hit him in the wrist with his stick just before the shot got off.

Tarasenko was alone on the side of the net midway through the third for an easy one, making it 2-0 and the countdown was on.

The Rangers didn’t go quietly. Shesterkin went to the bench with 2:24 left and Panarin scored 44 seconds later, cutting the Florida lead in half. But Florida killed off the rest of the clock, and with that, it was time to celebrate — without carrying the trophy away this time.

“We expected to be back here,” Tkachuk said. “Obviously, nothing’s guaranteed. But we expected this.”

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