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Panthers win their 1st Stanley Cup, top Oilers 2-1 in Game 7

Sam Reinhart and Carter Verhaeghe scored goals, Sergei Bobrovsky made 23 saves and the Panthers beat the Edmonton Oilers 2-1 on Monday night in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Aaron Ekblad
Posted at 11:53 PM, Jun 24, 2024

Aleksander Barkov put his hands at either end of the Stanley Cup and began skating away to start the celebration that the Florida Panthers have wanted forever.

And as he began to hoist hockey's chalice for the first time, he had one thought.

“It's heavy,” he said.

A 37-pound trophy wasn't too much for him. A three-game slide wasn't too much for the Panthers. There was no stumble with the Cup, no collapse with the Cup on the line. The Panthers are champions for the first time, after taking about the hardest path possible to the title.

Sam Reinhart and Carter Verhaeghe scored goals, Sergei Bobrovsky made 23 saves and the Panthers beat the Edmonton Oilers 2-1 on Monday night in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. It was the third title-round appearance in Florida's 30-year history; it was swept in 1996 by Colorado and routed 4-1 by Vegas last season. And that loss last year was what this team needed.

“You have to go through it first,” forward Matthew Tkachuk said, “to know what it takes to get it done.”

This time, they were on the right side of history — after avoiding what would have been a historic collapse. The Panthers won the first three games of the series, then lost the next three and needed a win on Monday to avoid joining the 1942 Detroit Red Wings as the only teams to lose the final after taking a 3-0 lead in the title round.

“It's not what I thought it would be,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “It's so much better.”

It wasn’t easy. Not even close. But it's done.

Barkov handed the Cup to Bobrovsky and the celebration was on. It took until the very end for the Panthers to deny Connor McDavid his first title, and Edmonton what would have been its first Cup since 1990.

“You want to become a true champion and you want to win,” said Bobrovsky, a champion for the first time at 35. “But at the end of the day, you don't do it for the Cups. You do it for the love of the game.”

McDavid won the Conn Smythe as MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs. He didn't come out for the trophy. It's not the one he wanted, anyway. The Cup is what they play for, and it was Florida that hoisted it.

“No player in the world wants to win the Stanley Cup more than him,” Oilers teammate Leon Draisaitl said of McDavid, who had one of the greatest individual postseasons in NHL history with 42 points. “He does everything right, every single day.”

But the Panthers did a little more right on Monday. And that's the difference.

“It’s not a dream anymore. It’s not a dream. It’s reality,” said Tkachuk, who got traded to Florida two summers ago with this as his goal. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. ... I can’t believe how good these two years have been. So thankful for this group of guys. It’s the best place, best guys. It’s something really special here with what we have.”

Mattias Janmark had the goal for Edmonton and Stuart Skinner stopped 19 shots for the Oilers. The Oilers also couldn’t snap Canada’s title drought; it’s been 1993 and counting since a team based in Canada won the Cup.

Montreal was the last to do so, 30 seasons ago. Since then, there have been seven attempts by teams from Canadian-based cities — Vancouver in 1994 and 2011, Calgary in 2004, the Oilers in 2006, Ottawa in 2007 and the Canadiens in 2021 — to win titles, and all were in vain.

South Florida now has one of everything when it comes to titles from the four major pro sports leagues in the U.S. The Miami Dolphins were champions twice, the then-Florida Marlins were champions twice, the Miami Heat have three titles and now the Panthers have joined the party.

Welcome, Stanley. The Panthers have been waiting. Maurice hoisted the Cup by the bench, closed his eyes tight to control the emotion and let out a yell. General manager Bill Zito didn't bother even trying to not let the yell out. And in the stands, Tkachuk's family — his father, Keith, never won a Cup — reveled in the moment, knowing their surname will soon be on Lord Stanley.

“This is for them,” Tkachuk said.

Bobrovsky was as cool as could be, even in the biggest moments. Oilers defenseman Evan Bouchard had a good look from the right circle with about 14 seconds left in the second period; Bobrovsky blocked the shot, and the puck bounced off him and into the air.

No problem. Bobrovsky took his stick and batted the puck away again, more like he was playing morning pickleball at a park than in the biggest game of his life — literally, the last line of defense against the Oilers, and against a piece of history that the Panthers desperately fought to avoid.

Florida led this title series 3-0, then got outscored 18-5 in Games 4, 5 and 6 to waste three chances at winning the Cup. Edmonton was one win away from becoming the second team in NHL history to win the Cup after dropping the first three games; Toronto did it to Detroit in 1942, and no team has pulled off such a comeback since.

Edmonton almost did it. Almost.

“They should have their heads up high,” Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch said. "There’s lots to be proud of.”

The Panthers brought in seven-time Grammy winner Alanis Morissette — she was born in Canada and became a dual U.S. citizen in 2005 — to sing the national anthems. Hardly anybody could hear her; the Oilers fans drowned her out for “O Canada,” the Panthers fans did the same for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They had Panthers legend Roberto Luongo bang the ceremonial bass drum after that; he urged fans to “let’s go” with an extra word in there that needed to be bleeped a few times.

“We have a great team on our side,” said Luongo, whose number was retired by the Panthers and is now part of the team's front office. “And the boys really dug deep.”

The pregame was raucous. The stage was set.

And the teams came out absolutely ablaze.

The Panthers got the first goal just 4:27 into the game when Verhaeghe waved his stick at the puck that was fired in from the left side by Evan Rodrigues and got just enough to redirect it past Skinner for a 1-0 lead — the first Florida lead since the end of Game 3.

They waited more than a week to be back on top. They stayed there for just over two minutes.

Janmark got behind the Florida defense and beat Bobrovsky over the right shoulder at 6:44, knotting things right back up and ensuring that this Game 7 of the final — like all 17 of the previous such games — wouldn’t end 1-0.

It stayed that way through wild ebbs and flows — the Oilers controlled long stretches, the Panthers would counter, back and forth — until Reinhart scored late in the second to put Florida up 2-1. It capped a crazy sequence, one where Florida defenseman Dmitry Kulikov wound up in the net to help prevent an Edmonton goal seconds before Reinhart beat Skinner. The goal was Reinhart’s 67th of the season, extending his Florida single-season record, and it was up to the Panthers to make it hold up.

“The determination,” Maurice said, “was clear.”

Florida was an NHL-best 44-0-3 entering Monday when leading after two periods this season. An NHL-best 85-2-6 in that situation in the two seasons under coach Maurice, too.

They slammed the door, one last time. And the Cup was their reward.

“This is the best moment of my life so far,” veteran Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “Nothing tops it.”