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At the time it happened in April, Zac Dalpe’s game-tying goal in the third period of Game 6 of the Florida Panthers’ first-round series with the Bruins had pretty high placement on the list of biggest goals in franchise history.
A month later, it has certainly fallen a few spots.
“That’s OK,” the forward said with a laugh. “I’m fine with it being bumped down the list.”
With all but one of the Panthers’ victories in the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs coming by one or two goals, Florida’s run to the 2023 Stanley Cup Final has been defined by clutch goals — often by superstar right wing Matthew Tkachuk and, in half of its wins, in overtime — and Dalpe’s still fits somewhere on the list. He tied the game with 7:41 left and the Panthers rallied to extend the series, then completed one of the biggest upsets in NHL history by winning Game 7 at TD Garden.
With rats and a sweep, Florida Panthers are in the Stanley Cup Final for first time since 1996 | Opinion
It was Dalpe’s third game of the first round and he also played Game 7, and then all of Florida’s second-round series with the Maple Leafs, but wasn’t in the lineup for any of the Eastern Conference finals.
It’s a strange existence for Dalpe, just as it is for goaltender Alex Lyon, who spent much of the season playing alongside the 33-year-old Canadian with AHL Charlotte. Both were instrumental to early parts of this run — Lyon started the last eight games of the regular season and won six times to get the Panthers into the Stanley Cup playoffs, then started the first three games of the postseason and got another win before ceding the net to star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky — and now are living their lives as the next men up for Florida, unsure whether another moment will ever come, while also being content with their role in this incredible run to the Stanley Cup Final.
“It’s like always balancing on the windowsill of, Oh, man, I want to enjoy this as much as I can,” Lyon said Sunday, “while also being absolutely terrified because you have to.”
At the start of the regular season, Dalpe and Lyon weren’t even supposed to be part of the Panthers’ plans. Both are currently on two-way contracts and played more games in the American Hockey League than the NHL this year. Dalpe is even the captain of the Charlotte Checkers and signed a two-year, two-way extension to stay with the organization — likely, primarily the Checkers — in March.
Both, however, spent large swaths of the regular season in South Florida because of the injuries and illnesses the Panthers faced throughout the year.
Lyon’s hero moment came first, in the last month of the regular season with Bobrovsky out with an illness and fellow goaltender Spencer Knight away from the team, and in the NHL’s and NHL Players’ Association’s joint player-assistance program. The 30-year-old American took over with Florida mired in a season-worst four-game losing streak and promptly led the Panthers on a season-best six-game winning streak to get them into the Cup playoffs by one point. Lyon was playing so well, Florida stuck with him to start the playoffs, even after Bobrovsky got healthy, and he won once in Boston before getting benched in Game 3.
He hasn’t played since. He’s happy to have played an important role, but knows, as Bobrovsky’s backup, he’s only one play away from being needed again.
“It’s also a long playoffs. It’s two and a half months,” the goalie said. “so if you just mail it in after the second round like, Oh, I’m good. I’m not going to play again, that’s when bad things happen.”
He didn’t have time to text his wife to let him know he was playing. His parents-in-law were there at FLA Live Arena and didn’t even realize he was playing until he hopped onto the ice for the first time.
“The first shift, I guess my father-in-law said to my mother-in-law, ‘It looks like Zac’s playing!’” Dalpe recalled.
His big contribution came five days later and set up Florida to upset the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins. It’s still his only point of the playoffs and, like Lyon, he’s content if it’s all he does, but he too knows it might not be all.
“I’ve kind of teetered being the next man up my whole career, if you look at the history of it, so I don’t think it’s anything new,” Dalpe said. “If I’m not playing, it might (tick) my wife off that I’m still rolling out, I need to be in bed by a really good time, but other than that, it’s kind of status quo.
“A lot of people talk about the pressure and it gets magnified as you go along, and I completely agree, but nobody talks about how much more fun it is coming to the rink and just the feeling—I guess the new era calls it the vibes. It’s hard to explain because you didn’t think it could get more fun. In my position, it’s the NHL, so you’re already having fun, but just being in this position is just something I’ll remember for the rest of my life, for sure.”