Ultimate Game 7 stakes weighing on Oilers, Panthers: ‘Excites you’

SUNRISE, Fla. — The End is here.

But as the Panthers and Oilers get ready to decide the 2023-24 NHL champion once and for all on Monday night in sweltering south Florida, the past is just as interested in the result as the present.

Will a Canadian team win the Stanley Cup for the first time since the Canadiens in 1993?

Panthers head coach Paul Maurice speaks to the media on June 21, 2024. NHLI via Getty Images

Will the Cup finals see their first successful comeback from a 3-0 deficit since the Maple Leafs pulled the feat against the Red Wings in 1942?

Or will the Panthers survive having lost the past three games by an aggregate score of 18-5 and hoist the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since its inception in the 1993-94 season?

It’s the stuff of dreams … or nightmares. But on Sunday, both teams were thinking about the dreams.

“What makes this whole thing awesome is the context of it,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “Nobody has ever, ever played on a back[yard] rink in Canada and scored the Game 3 overtime winner in the qualifying round. It’s one game, always, that excites you.”

Not just Canada, or the U.S., but Cologne, Germany (Leon Draisaitl) and Tampere, Finland (Aleksander Barkov), too. This fantasy knows no boundaries.

“I was one of those kids for sure,” Barkov, the Panthers’ captain, said. “Playing by yourself, whenever you’re outdoors or at home … ‘This is Game 7, Stanley Cup Playoffs, maybe overtime.’ So yeah, I’ve had many of those memories and now it’s becoming the truth. [It’s] the most exciting time to be a hockey player.”

The Panthers got here by defeating the Lightning in five games, the Bruins in six and the Rangers in six. They had a six-game winning streak after taking the first three games of the finals.

The Oilers topped the Kings in five games, won a Game 7 in Vancouver in the second round, then took out the Stars in six in the Western Conference final.

Edmonton’s 3-0 deficit in this series, however, has thus far proven to be a mere detail in what has been a magical season. They started 3-9-1 under former coach Jay Woodcroft, who was fired on Nov. 12 and replaced by Kris Knoblauch. He had been serving as the coach of the Rangers’ AHL affiliate Hartford Wolf Pack.

Oilers head coach Kris Knoblauch speaks to the media on June 15,2024. NHLI via Getty Images

The Oilers quickly perked up and ran off a 16-game winning streak, the second-longest in NHL history. They possess the top four point scorers in this postseason, paced by 42 (eight goals and 34 assists) from superstar Connor McDavid.

“It’s definitely an added bonus, having the best player,” Knoblauch said. “Not only having the best player, but [he’s] playing extremely well right now.

“I think not only do you have the advantage with him on the ice, but I think it just breeds confidence throughout the team.”

Connor McDavid looks to pass during the Oilers’ Game 6 win over the Panthers on June 21, 2024. NHLI via Getty Images

Draisaitl, No. 3 in playoff scoring with 10 goals and 21 assists for 31 points, added: “Every game we go into knowing we have the best player in the world on our side. But this league is really hard to go through just one player or two or three players. You need a whole team.”

Draisaitl pointed to the Oilers’ other-worldly penalty killing. They have given up just four goals in 68 times shorthanded. Against the Panthers they have killed 19 of 20 penalties.

The Panthers conducted a spirited workout at their practice facility but it did not include goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who was given a day to rest up for the most important night of his or any of these players’ or coaches’ lives.

And so now it comes down to one game, 60 minutes or maybe more, to decide it all.

“I’m excited,” McDavid said. “Obviously we’ve worked hard to put ourselves in this position.

“You have to stay even-keeled. You can’t ride the wave or roller coaster. We really haven’t done anything yet. We’ve won three big games to get ourselves back in the series. It comes down to one game here and we’ll be ready.”

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