Pierre LeBrun: NHL history is on the line for the Oilers in Stanley Cup’s improbable Game 7

Can the Edmonton Oilers complete their remarkable comeback? Or will the Florida Panthers lift the Cup after all?

Edmonton • One more win for a piece of Stanley Cup history few will ever forget.

One more win for hockey’s greatest player to stamp his legacy.

One more win for Canada’s 31-year Cup drought to end.

One more game in what may go down as the most memorable Stanley Cup Final ever.

And one more loss that would crush the Florida Panthers in a way that could be very difficult for a franchise to recover from.

There is so much riding on Game 7 Monday night in Sunrise, Florida, for both teams.

Of course, a Panthers win in front of their home crowd will make all this just part of the arduous journey en route to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship. You hear all the time from teams about how hard it is to win a Cup. This would be the ultimate example.

That’s still very much in play for the Panthers.

“Game 7, so everyone’s dream, and that’s why we need to be ready for Game 7,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said.

But it sure doesn’t feel right now like that’s the script playing in front of our eyes. This feels instead like a Panthers team running out of gas while chasing a runaway Oilers train.

Welcomed onto the ice Friday night before an electric crowd at Rogers Place, the Oilers stormed out of the gates and tilted the ice on the Panthers, and 7:27 into the first period Leon Draisaitl made a sweet pass to Warren Foegele who beat Sergei Bobrovsky.

It was 1-0 after 20 minutes. It felt like 10-0.

Adam Henrique made it 2-0 just 46 seconds into the second period and Zach Hyman booked-ended the period with an all-out effort breakaway goal with just 1:40 left in the second to make it 3-0.

Game. Set. Match.

Of course, there was a rather monster coach’s challenge by the Oilers in the middle of all that which took a goal away from Barkov on the very next shift after Henrique had scored. Replay showed Sam Reinhart was offside. Goal erased. Paul Maurice lost it behind the Panthers bench.

Who knows what a 2-1 game looks like at that point, not to mention Florida going on the power play had the coach’s challenge failed.

“That’s a time that could change the flow of the game,” Oilers head coach Kris Knoblauch said, obviously relieved to be on the right side of that call.

Instead, it was another dominating win for the Oilers. The penalty kill was perfect again, Stuart Skinner outplayed his counterpart Bobrovsky again, and suddenly a comment Knoblauch made when down 3-0 deserves a recall. Asked about facing elimination ahead of Game 4, he talked at the time about enjoying the challenge “in the next 10 days.”

There were raised eyebrows among the media members on hand.

Turns out, he was right about needing another 10 days to end this series.

“It’s been fun. It has been stressful. We’re just playing,” the rookie NHL head coach said postgame Friday night. “I know we’ve surprised a lot of people, but I don’t think we’ve surprised anybody in the room. You know, we felt we could do this. We’ve gone on winning streaks before. We felt early in the series, down three, we felt we could have won two of those in our opinion. We felt we played well enough to win those and they just didn’t go our way. And now we’re just playing, our backs up against the wall, we’ve been written off many times throughout the season.

Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his goal during the third period of Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals against the Florida Panthers, Tuesday, June 18, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. The Oilers defeated the Panthers 5-3. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

“We’ve been a pretty loose group,” he added. “It’s nice to be around this team because I think they’re having the time of their lives right now. Not just because we’re going to Game 7, but I think we were having a great time when we were down three games.”

How did things get here?

“That 8-1 win was exactly what the Oilers needed in Game 4,” three-time Stanley Cup champion Duncan Keith said via text message Friday night after Edmonton’s 5-1 Game 6 win.

We wondered if Game 4 was just a blip for the Panthers. Instead, it looks like the night the Oilers were unleashed back into this series.

It was Keith, of course, a player development consultant with the Oilers, who arrived at the rink after the team went down 3-0 in the Cup Final and spoke with a number of players sharing how he believed there was a path back for this team.

Keith, in fact, chatted with McDavid in particular before Games 3, 4 and 5 to share his counsel.

As bleak as it looked to the outside world, the Oilers were unwavering in their confidence that the series was far from over. I asked Hyman on Saturday morning what the main message was when the team was down 3-0.

“I think the message has been, it’s been hard all year,” Hyman responded. “I think it’s almost fitting we’re in that spot. Looking at the series, we thought that after those three games, we deserved better than to be down 3-0, but there are no moral victories in hockey. We were in the situation we were in, but if there was ever a team that could crawl out of it, we believed that it could be us, just the way the season’s gone, the way that we’ve played while facing adversity, the way we’ve played while facing elimination.

“We feel that we can do it. … If there’s any group that can do it, it’s this group.”

They have repeated that mantra over and over again. After a win in Game 4, after another critical win at Florida in Game 5, and in the days leading up to Friday’s Game 6 before an unbelievable Oilers crowd at Rogers Place.

Win, win, win. All tied up 3-3. Incredible.

“The job is not done,” Hyman said postgame. “It’s a great story but you need to finish it. Everybody will forget if we don’t finish it. That’s the key. Everyone remembers the winners. It’s great to give them a moment like that, but I think they’re waiting for a bigger moment.”

I go back to a sit-down interview I did with Jeff Jackson in early December at the Board of Governors meeting,

At the time, the Oilers were still trying to iron themselves out after a brutal 2-9-1 start led to a coaching change. But Jackson, the CEO of hockey operations, was resolute in his belief back then on Dec. 4 that he had an elite Cup contending team on his hands that would figure things out.

Now they’re one win away from a Stanley Cup championship. His players truly believed when down 3-0 they had a realistic chance.

“Well it doesn’t surprise me because they’ve clawed themselves back from all kinds of things this year,” Jackson told The Athletic postgame Friday night. “You and I talked in December in Seattle about the fact we were in a hole and I felt like we would climb out of it.

“They’re a resilient bunch,” Jackson added. “You learn stuff from going through hardship and difficulty. We’re not there yet, but we’ve given ourselves a chance here in Game 7.”

They’re the first team in 79 years to force a Game 7 in the Cup Final after being down 3-0. One more win and they’ll be the first team since the 1942 Maple Leafs to come all the way back from down 3-0 in the Cup Final to win it all.

“You play to be in the Stanley Cup Final and there’s no better game in sports than a Game 7 and it’s in the Stanley Cup Final,” said Hyman, who has 70 total goals this season including the regular season and playoffs. “You can’t ask for a bigger opportunity as a player and I’m sure as a fan of hockey everybody is excited to watch it.”

“We want the Cup! We want the Cup!” chanted the NHL’s loudest crowd in the waning minutes of Friday night’s victory.

They just might get it. And if the Oilers pull this off, there will be stories told in these parts forever.

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.