Panthers avoid historic collapse, beat Oilers for their first Stanley Cup championship

Florida edges Edmonton 2-1 in Game 7

Sunrise, Fla. • Phew!

In their fourth attempt at securing the Stanley Cup for the first time in the franchise’s 30-year history, the Florida Panthers avoided a historic collapse on Monday night, finally taking care of business and closing out the stubborn Edmonton Oilers and the sport’s greatest player, Connor McDavid.

In a 2-1 victory in Game 7 at Amerant Bank Arena, the Panthers overcame the immense pressure that came with blowing a 3-0 series lead and dodged a bullet by not becoming the answer to an unenviable trivia question.

The Oilers were attempting to become the second team in league history, and first since the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, to rally back from a 3-0 deficit in the Final to win the Stanley Cup. The Panthers were also trying to avoid becoming the first back-to-back Stanley Cup losers since the 1977 and 1978 Boston Bruins.

Canada’s Stanley Cup drought has now reached 31 years.

After being largely silent in the past three games, the Panthers’ big guns showed up big in the make-or-break final game.

Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Reinhart each scored his second goal in his past nine games to break out of slumps when it mattered most. Verhaeghe also assisted on Reinhart’s go-ahead goal late in the second period, after veteran defenseman Dmitry Kulikov slid a puck out of harm’s way at the side of the crease.

After losing their way in Games 4, 5 and 6, the Panthers got back to their strong defensive-minded identity. The best defensive team in the NHL during the regular season only allowed 24 shots in Game 7.

Mattias Janmark scored the lone goal for Edmonton, which tied the game 1-1 in the first period, as McDavid went his final two games of the series without a point.

Even without scoring in Games 6 and 7, McDavid led the playoffs in scoring and set a new record for postseason assists. He was awarded the Conn Smythe as the playoffs MVP, the sixth player in history to be so honored on a losing team.

Once a prime example of NHL franchise instability and dysfunction, through two decades of losing on the ice and a revolving door of coaches, general managers and owners off it, the Panthers became the sixth team in the NHL’s post-1967-68 expansion era to reach the Stanley Cup Final after losing in it the year prior.

They previously reached the Final in just the third season after their 1993 inception, then went from that 1996 Eastern Conference championship until 2022 without winning a playoff round. That included 10 consecutive seasons without making the playoffs.

Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky backstopped the Panthers to their 16th playoff win with 23 saves. Paul Maurice, who has the fourth-most regular-season coaching wins in NHL history and the second-most games coached, won the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career. Maurice also improved his personal record to 5-0 in Game 7s. Aleksander Barkov became the first Finnish captain in NHL history to lead his team to a Stanley Cup.

Here are five quick takeaways.

‘Mr. Clutch’ comes through

It had been a rough go lately for Verhaeghe, who was minus-11 in his previous four games and had no goals since Game 1. Entering Game 7, he was taken off the No. 1 power play for Vladimir Tarasenko, perhaps because of an undisclosed injury. He noticeably had trouble handling the puck throughout Game 6.

But in Game 7, Verhaeghe came through in a big way, with a first-period goal six seconds after a power play expired and then a quick-up leading to Reinhart’s 10th goal of the playoffs after 57 during the regular season.

Verhaeghe’s goal was his 11th of the playoffs, tying Matthew Tkachuk’s franchise record set during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago. Fourteen of Verhaeghe’s 26 career playoff goals have been go-ahead goals. That’s the most in the NHL by four (Zach Hyman and Steven Stamkos) since his first career playoff goal in 2021.

Panthers burned on rush again

When Janmark tied the score in the first period, it was the fifth consecutive breakaway by Edmonton that got by Bobrovsky in the series and the 11th goal off rush chances since Game 3.

The Panthers’ Gustav Forsling–Aaron Ekblad shutdown pair was excellent in the first three rounds and start to this series but was uncharacteristically off starting in the third period of Game 3. On the Janmark goal, with the Panthers up a goal, Ekblad was asleep at the switch when he skated to the wall and got outside the dots.

Cody Ceci hit Janmark with a perfect headman pass, and the game was tied at 1-1 just 2:17 after the Panthers opened the scoring.

That was Janmark’s fourth career Game 7 goal after having a hat trick in Game 7 of the first round for Vegas against Minnesota in 2021.

McDavid and Draisaitl go down quietly

Who in the world could have guessed McDavid would go pointless in the last two games after recording three goals and five assists in Games 4 and 5?

But that’s exactly what happened.

After failing to register a shot and point for the eighth time in his career (regular season and playoffs) on Friday — the only time the Oilers have ever won in that scenario — McDavid didn’t accomplish much more Monday. He had two shots. He had two glorious chances late in the third period. On one, he couldn’t get his stick on the puck with the net open, and on the other, he chipped an Evan Bouchard pass wide. But again, McDavid failed to get on the scoresheet.

Considering he had a chance at breaking Wayne Gretzky’s mark of 47 points from 1985, the lack of production was almost shocking.

But McDavid being stuck in neutral pales in comparison to what happened to Leon Draisaitl.

Draisaitl had just three assists in the seven games against the Panthers. He didn’t score a goal, extending that drought to nine contests dating to Game 4 of the Western Conference final against Dallas.

The two superstars have done so much for the Oilers over the past nine seasons and in these playoffs, but they struggled to produce at the most important time.

Skinner’s late-series success ends

Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner had been lights out in Games 4 through 7 throughout the postseason this year, a major factor in the Oilers getting to the winner-take-all contest in the Cup Final. He was 10-0 while giving up just 10 goals and posting a .945 save percentage coming into Monday.

That streak came to a halt Monday.

Skinner surrendered the opening goal 4:27 into the first period when Verhaeghe tipped in a shot from Evan Rodrigues. The winner off Reinhart’s stick at 15:11 of the second period came off the rush and beat Skinner on the short side, between his left pad and glove.

The 25-year-old netminder allowed only two goals on 21 shots for a .905 save percentage — certainly not a bad night’s work, but not good enough to get the win.

Panthers arena flooded with Oilers fans

It’s a rarity to see a home arena invaded by visiting fans in the Stanley Cup Final, let alone in a Game 7. But Oilers fans traveled in droves and bought tickets en masse for Monday’s game.

It was obvious in warmups when Oilers fans took over the Canadian national anthem from Alanis Morissette, who was belting out O Canada much slower than the crowd. It was obvious when Bobrovsky received “Ser-Gei” taunts as opposed to “Bobby!” chants throughout. And it was obvious with the thousands wearing orange and blue jumping up and down and screaming when Janmark tied the score in the first period.

The Panthers have a partnership with SeatGeek and tons of tickets were thrown onto the secondary market and quickly gobbled up by Edmonton diehards.