ARIZONA COYOTES

Top Cats: Florida Panthers win their 1st Stanley Cup, top Edmonton Oilers in Game 7

Jun 24, 2024, 9:03 PM | Updated: 9:04 pm

Florida Panthers forward Carter Verhaeghe (23) celebrates his goal with teammate Anton Lundell (15)...

Florida Panthers forward Carter Verhaeghe (23) celebrates his goal with teammate Anton Lundell (15) after scoring on the Edmonton Oilers during the first period of Game 7 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final on Monday, June 24, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

(Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — There was no collapse. The Florida Panthers are Stanley Cup champions for the first time, and they took 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.

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.

“It’s heavy,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said, after he took the celebratory first lap with the Cup.

But not too heavy. Barkov handed it 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.

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.

“It’s not a dream anymore. It’s not a dream. It’s reality,” said Panthers forward Matthew 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.

They 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.

“I just can’t believe we did it,” Barkov said.

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.

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.”

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Top Cats: Florida Panthers win their 1st Stanley Cup, top Edmonton Oilers in Game 7