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For the Panthers, the Mission Proves Stunningly Possible

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a kid playing road hockey in Ottawa, Dave Lowry dreamed of this night.

When it arrived, when the Florida Panthers had defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-1, in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals and earned a berth in the Stanley Cup final against the Colorado Avalanche, the reality of his team’s stunning success exceeded his long-cherished dream.

“I spent astronomical hours pretending to be in the Stanley Cup final. That’s the dream of every kid who plays hockey in Canada,” Lowry said Saturday after the Panthers became the only third-year team in NHL history to reach the final since the major expansion of 1967. “To give ourselves the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup, I’m just ecstatic.”

Behind every exhausted smile, behind every Panther stick lifted in exultation as the Penguins and the Civic Arena crowd of 17,355 watched in envy, there was a story.

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There was the Panthers’ defense, which held NHL scoring champion Mario Lemieux and runner-up Jaromir Jagr without a goal in six games, including the last five. There was Florida forward Tom Fitzgerald, who has scored five of his six career playoff goals against the Penguins, the last one being the tie-breaker at 6:18 of the third period Saturday on a blast from just inside the blue line that glanced off the stick of Penguin defenseman Neil Wilkinson and over Tom Barrasso’s shoulder.

And of course, there’s the collective story of the Panthers, who will face the Avalanche beginning Tuesday at Denver in the first championship round featuring first-time finalists since the NHL’s earliest days. But the most compelling individual story might be Florida goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, who had five saves on Lemieux and six on Jagr among the 39 he made Saturday.

“He stopped everything but the kitchen sink tonight,” Penguin Coach Ed Johnston said. “We had chances. In he last three or four games Jagr had four or five breakaways and you can almost go to the bank that he’ll bury one or two of those. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody in a zone the way the Beezer has been in these playoffs.”

Vanbiesbrouck, who gave the Panthers instant credibility when they chose him in the 1993 expansion draft, reached the semifinals with the New York Rangers in 1986 but lost to Montreal.

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“I wondered [if he would get this far again] for 10 years, to this moment,” he said. “You wonder every season and you look forward to this as you go to training camps, and to get it done is a feeling every athlete aches for . . . I can’t tell you how good it feels. I’ve watched it a lot.”

Experiencing it was much better. “The thing I remember most vividly is the look on everybody’s face [at the end] and they’re coming at you full speed ahead,” he said. “It was such a jubilant feeling.”

The Penguins--seeded second in the East, two spots higher than the Panthers--were still unsure of what had hit them.

“Even after we didn’t win Game 6, we thought we had the better team and we felt confident going into Game 7,” said Petr Nedved, whose wrist shot during a power play tied the game, 1-1, at 1:23 of the third period. “We didn’t exactly have a lot of extremely good scoring chances because of the way they play, but when we did, most of the time Vanbiesbrouck was there.”

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Vanbiesbrouck had ample help Saturday from players like Mike Hough, another original Panther. Usually a checker, Hough showed the skills of a natural scorer when he faked defenseman Francois Leroux to the ice to create a give-and-go with Robert Svehla and finished it by scoring at 13:13 of the first period.

Although Nedved brought the Penguins even on only their fourth power-play goal of the series, the Panthers wouldn’t fold. The go-ahead goal came from Fitzgerald, and the clincher from winger Johan Garpenlov at 17:23 of the third period, off a pass from Bill Lindsay.

“It’s been a fairy tale, dream-type season,” Panther Coach Doug MacLean said, “and let’s hope it continues.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Stanley Cup Finals

COLORADO AVALANCHE vs. FLORIDA PANTHERS

Tuesday--at Colorado, 5 p.m.

Thursday--at Colorado, 5 p.m.

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Saturday--at Florida, 5 p.m.

June 10--at Florida, 5 p.m.

*June 13--at Colorado, 5 p.m.

*June 15--at Florida, 5 p.m.

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*June 17--at Colorado, 5 p.m.

* if necessary

All Times Pacific


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