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What three Stanley Cup veterans are bringing to the Florida Panthers on this playoff run

Carter Verhaeghe won a Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2020 and was ready to get out of town.

It was nothing against Tampa Bay — “obviously, I got really good experience,” the left wing said last week — it was just he was ready for something more. He only played in eight games during the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs and only three in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

“My goal coming here [was] a little bit that I wanted to have a bigger impact,” Verhaeghe said. He didn’t want to just be a passenger on a run to the Cup. He wanted to drive results.

Three years later, he’s getting his chance as a top-line forward for the Florida Panthers, who will begin the 2023 Stanley Cup Final on Saturday against the Golden Knights at Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena, and is also now doubling as one of the few leaders on the roster with experience playing in a Stanley Cup Final.

Of the 20 players to dress for the Panthers’ final game of the Eastern Conference finals last week, only three have experience playing in a Cup Final — Verhaeghe, six-time All-Star center Eric Staal and defenseman Marc Staal — and only two have won a ring before.

Verhaeghe, 27, makes his biggest contribution through his play on ice. The Canadian winger led Florida with 42 goals in the regular season and his 15 points in the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs are the team’s second most.

The Staal brothers, although important every-day pieces of the lineup, bring as much of their value through their leadership and ability to fit into a role.

Eric Staal, 38, centers the Panthers’ fourth line and scored 14 goals in the regular season, and also ranks third among Panthers forward in short-handed time on ice. For a former superstar, Staal fits impressively into an unglamorous role.

He also went to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final with the Canadiens — in his last season in the NHL before this one — and won a Cup in 2006 with the Hurricanes.

His advice has been for Florida to keep doing what it has done so well all year: Ignore all the outside noise and stick to the hockey.

“There’s going to be so much things all around everything, but, at the end of the day, we’ve got to play the game and that’s all we’ve done all year,” the Canadian forward said last week. “That’s all we’ve done, especially since January, is we just came to play the game and I think our guys will be focusing on that and enjoying that part of it. That’s the best part.”

Marc Staal, 36, made it to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final with the Rangers, only for New York to come up short against the Kings — coincidentally, the team the Panthers are trying to join as the only No. 8 seeds to ever win a title.

He plays an important role, too: As the partner of star defenseman Brandon Montour, Staal is averaging nearly 22 minutes per game and his stay-at-home reliability, coach Paul Maurice said, is part of why Montour has had a breakout season.

He’s also itching to finally win a championship.

“It was a pretty unbelievable feeling just to get back into the Final and have a chance at that,” he said Sunday, “so we enjoyed that for the last couple days.”

Patric Hornqvist, even though he’s out for the season with a concussion, is also an important piece, Maurice insisted. The 36-year-old right wing won two Cups with the Penguins last decade and helped set the tone for these Panthers back in training camp, when he was expected to be an important bottom-six forward.

Players with championship pedigree, Maurice said, aren’t just important during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Now, they’re influences just come to a head.

“We lean on those guys all year for the original ideas that we wanted to play a game that we can replicate in the playoffs. We had to change the style of hockey that we played, so even from the summertime Patric Hornqvist was right on board with that,” said the first-year coach. “Patric and Eric have come to the rink the entire year with a smile on their face, all excited to be here and that’s really what’s rubbed off over the course of the year and now their smiles are a little bigger.”

Panthers announce Cup watch parties

The Panthers will hold watch parties for both Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final at FLA Live Arena this weekend. Tickets for each party are $10 and parking is free. Proceeds benefit the Florida Panthers Foundation.

Game 1 is Saturday and Game 2 is Monday. Both games start at 8 pm at the T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada. Doors for the watch parties will open at 6:30 pm, and concessions and merchandise stores will be open.

Tickets for both watch parties are available on the team website.

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