Greg Cote: Stanley Cup is in sight for Panthers with 4-1 rout of Oilers, 2-0 Final lead

Greg Cote, Miami Herald on

Published in Hockey

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are embarking now on the longest northwestern road trip in Stanley Cup Final history — a 2,543-mile trek to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The time killer of choice, as always with the Cats on a flight, will be poker.

The dealing might be a bit more jocular than usual. The bad hands won’t seem so rough. The bets may be a bit more daring.

They’re playing with house money.

The NHL championship series moves via a near-8-hour flight for Games 3 and 4 on Thursday and Saturday nights — but the travelers made sure they’d be flying with smiles, not stress.

Monday night did all that.

The Panthers overcame an early home deficit to decisively beat the Oilers, 4-1, to pack a commanding 2-0 series lead for their trip.

House money? Now, if Florida wins the next two it is Stanley Cup champion for the first time in 30 franchise seasons. A split means the Cats would be able to clinch at home in Game 5. Even losing both in Edmonton would still find it an even series and Florida with two of the last three games at home.

The Stanley Cup is — effectively, realistically — Florida’s to win now. This series — effectively, realistically — may have ended Monday night.

(Me saying that, of course, not the Panthers.)

You could argue every game in a seven-game series is the most important (not counting Game 7, the obvious winner, ) but the argument for Game 2 is this: In NHL history teams up 2-0 after a Game 2 win are 88.6% likely to win the series.. Teams tied 1-1 after a Game 2 loss at home are only 56.7% likely.

That is what Saturday meant for the Cats and their title dreams.

And for Edmonton and the bid of superstar Connor McDavid — McJesus and the Chosen One — to finally win his elusive first Stanley Cup.

After Game 1’s 3-0 Florida victory, McDavid had called the Panthers “as advertised,” meaning a physical, defense-first unit. Florida inflicted almost double the hits that game, 57-32.


More of the same, unfortunately for the Oilers.

Florida made it 3-1 on a power-play goal by Evan Rodrigues — his second of the game and sixth of the postseason — on a close range tip-in. It came with 7:34 to play and had to demoralize the visitors. The goal also was the Cats’ first this series with a man advantage, after an 0-for-6 skid.

And it meant the Cats, third-period demons, had now outscored opponents 27-11 in the final period this postseason.

The Panthers’ 2-1 lead had come 3:11 into the third period came on Rodrigues’ gem of a slap shot, unassisted, when a loose puck found his stick. Goalie Stuart Skinner was not up to the task of stopping the shot by the second-line wing who’d taken a nasty spill earlier in the game.

Florida had equalized 1-1 mid-second period on a rare hero turn by defenseman Niko Mikkola, the 6-5 Finn typically cast as the bruiser familiar with the penalty box. This time he took a perfect pass from Anton Lundell and put a slap shot past the right of Skinner — a score that may leave the goaltender wincing once seen on replay.

Edmonton had led 1-0 on a breakaway goal on defenseman Mattias Ekholm’s wrist shot off a McDavid pass with 8:43 left in the first period. Florida defender Gustav Forsling was left alone and a bit late sliding over for the block on what was a 4-on-4 goal with both teams on a penalty.

Florida had a big opportunity when Oiler Warren Foegele drew a 5-minute major for a dirty kneeing that left Eetu Luostarinen flat and motionless on the ice for most of a minute before, thankfully, he skated off on his own power and later returned to action. But Florida’s own 2-minute penalty cut into that advantage, and with both teams down a man that was when Ekholm scored.

Florida’s last goal was an empty-netter by Aaron Ekblad with 2:28 left.

The Panthers’ penalty kill remained perfect in this Final, 4 for 4 against the Oilers’ vaunted power play in Game 2 and now 6 for 6 this series.

Monday night Florida did more than kill penalties.

It effectively killed its opponent’s Stanley Cup dreams.

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