Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Panthers claim Stanley Cup for first time, win Game 7 to deny Oilers

Florida’s Aleksander Barkov lifts the Stanley Cup after Florida’s win over the Edmonton Oilers on Monday at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Fla.  (Taylor Newquist / The Spokesman-Review)

SUNRISE, Fla. – Paul Maurice knew these Florida Panthers were different the moment he hung up the phone. Two years ago, general manager Bill Zito called Maurice, then six months into something of a sabbatical after stepping down from coaching the Winnipeg Jets, about taking over behind the bench in Florida.

After Maurice accepted, he called each of the players, and he had a sense that his new group was special. In his first season, he led Florida to the Stanley Cup Final, but his worn-down, banged-up roster lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games. In his second season, the Panthers became the first team since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 to return to the finals after losing the previous year.

This time, they won.

With a 2-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers in Game 7 at Amerant Bank Arena on Monday night, Maurice’s long-held feeling that this group was special was proved true. The Panthers had to rebound in the final game of the season after losing three straight to the Oilers, who became the first team since 1945 to drop the first three games of the finals and come back to force a Game 7.

Sam Reinhart scored the game-winner, his 10th goal of the playoffs, late in the second period. Sergei Bobrovsky made 23 saves for Florida. Stuart Skinner stopped 19 shots for the Oilers.

When Maurice was hired, he wanted to instill “a style of game that you can play in the playoffs.” He turned a freewheeling, offensive juggernaut into the best defensive team in the NHL; the Panthers allowed just 2.41 goals per game in the regular season this year, tied for the fewest in the league.

“Playoff hockey is different. We talk about this in training camp, and it’s hard,” Maurice said after Game 2, a 4-1 win. “ I believe for our veteran core over the last two years, this is Game 204, and we’ve been working really, really hard for 204 games to get to this.”

Game 7 was the core’s 209th game together under Maurice. It was the final one it needed to achieve its goal. The Panthers had to do it the hard way, overcoming the Oilers’ furious comeback to even the series, but this group was prepared by Maurice to do things the hard way.

“It’s not a dream anymore,” Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk said on the ABC broadcast after the game. “It’s not a dream; it’s reality. I can’t believe it. … I can’t believe how good these two years have been. I’m so grateful for this group of guys. … It’s something really special here with what we have.”

The tight-checking, grinding victory summed up exactly what Maurice came to Florida to teach. It denied the Oilers their first title since 1990 and kept the Stanley Cup from a Canadian team again; the Montreal Canadiens in 1993 remain the last Canadian club to hoist it.

Early in the first period, for the first time since Game 3, the Panthers took the lead; Edmonton had scored first in Games 4, 5 and 6. Carter Verhaeghe deflected a shot by Evan Rodrigues past Skinner’s glove just 4:27 in, soothing the tension of the anxious home crowd.

But the Oilers, who found success on the breakaway against Bobrovsky earlier in the series, needed barely more than two minutes to respond. A pass from Cody Ceci sprung Mattias Janmark, and Janmark needed no further invitation to tuck the puck past Bobrovsky and tie the score at 6:44.

With the score level, the tension ratcheted up for the rest of the first period and into the second. The teams traded sequences of pressure, with neither able to break through the other’s defense. Both teams were committed to defending the middle of the ice and holding their opposition to the perimeter. Every inch of space on the ice had to be battled for; nothing was given.

The Oilers opened up the Panthers off the rush in Games 4, 5 and 6 with stretch passes and speed through the neutral zone. The Panthers returned to their identity in Game 7, defending with much tighter gaps and keeping firmer control over the flow of the game. Even when Edmonton built momentum and applied pressure, Florida never panicked – the steady calm evoked the first three games of the series, when the Panthers clamped down on the Oilers and gave them little room to breathe.

Edmonton found an opening with a shot by Warren Foegele that trickled into the crease with 5:01 left in the second period, and the puck evaded Bobrovsky as it slid into the blue paint. But Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov swept the puck out of danger away from the goal line, and just seconds later, Sam Reinhart picked his spot off the rush to put the Panthers back into the lead at 15:11.

The tensest moment for Florida in the third period came with just over seven minutes remaining, when a loose puck around the net landed in the vicinity of superstar Connor McDavid for a would-be tying goal. But McDavid – who was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoff MVP – couldn’t corral the puck, Zach Hyman’s frantic backhand attempt didn’t get through, and Eetu Luostarinen fell in behind Bobrovsky to block the opening and end the threat.

After a shaky previous three games, Bobrovsky returned to form at the most critical moment. Even when things occasionally turned chaotic around his crease, the puck never found its way in, whether Bobrovsky made the stop or it was blocked by a skater in front of him.

The Panthers were under heavy pressure in the final minutes, but after two years of the team being prepared to win games with defense and relentless commitment to each other, hanging on in the last minutes of Game 7 to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup was fitting.

Florida did it the hard way, just as Maurice designed.