After back-to-back losses, Panthers' Cup Final goal clear as ever: 'Just got to win one game'

Jordan McPherson, Miami Herald on

Published in Hockey

Paul Maurice kept the message simple. His Florida Panthers have been knocked down the past couple games with history on the horizon, but the optimism around the team hasn’t wavered.

“They’re not feeling deflated,” the veteran coach said. “A little grumpy.”

As should be the case when another opportunity to clinch the Stanley Cup went awry.

The Panthers had a 3-0 stranglehold in the best-of-7 series. So close to winning it all yet the job still far from being done.

A desperate Edmonton Oilers team took advantage.

First an 8-1 rout in Game 4 on Saturday in Edmonton, Alberta.

And then a 5-3 win in Game 5 on Tuesday in Sunrise, Fla.

Just like that, we have a series.

Game 6 is on Friday at Edmonton’s Rogers Place. The Panthers are still just one win away, but should the Oilers win on home ice, a winner-take-all Game 7 takes place at Amerant Bank Arena on Monday.

“We’ve just got to win one game,” center Sam Bennett said. “It’s as simple as that.”

It’s simple in theory, yes, but the Panthers haven’t been able to produce in the closeout game yet. Is the pressure mounting on this Panthers team with so much on the line?

“No. No. No,” star winger Matthew Tkachuk insisted postgame. “It’s not an elimination game for us. We’re going up there with a 3-2 series lead. Just got to take care of business.”

How do they do that?

There are a few things to clean up. Among them:

— Slow starts: Edmonton, playing desperate with its season on the line, pounced early in both Games 4 and 5 and never looked back.

In Game 4, Edmonton had a 5-1 lead through the first five minutes of the second period, which prompted Paul Maurice to pull starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky from the net for the first time this postseason.

In Game 5, the Oilers were up 3-0 25 minutes into the game.


“The last couple games, our start wasn’t good enough,” Bennett said.

— Special teams: Of Edmonton’s 13 goals the past two games, five have come on special teams — three on the power play, two shorthanded.

On Tuesday, Edmonton opened scoring with a Connor Brown shorthanded goal when he intercepted a Brandon Montour pass at the blue line and rushed down the ice for an uncontested breakaway. Zach Hyman and Corey Perry both scored on the power play in the second period.

The Panthers held Edmonton scoreless on 10 power-play opportunities through the first three games.

“We just have to keep battling, keep doing what we do,” defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “Obviously, we believe in our kill. It’s been good all year, [but] they have a good power play.”

— Containing Connor McDavid: After Florida held the superstar center to just three points through the first three games, McDavid has erupted for eight points (three goals, five assists) in Games 4 and 5. He now has a staggering 42 points this postseason (eight goals, 34 assists).

“Yeah,” Ekman-Larsson said, “he’s good.”

Now that said, the Panthers showed signs of life late that they will need to build on as they head into Game 6.

After Edmonton went up 3-0, the Panthers held the Oilers to just 11 shots on goal over the final 35 minutes — including a mere four shots in the third period — as they mounted their comeback bid.

Tkachuk cut the deficit to 3-1 6:53 into the second period with a snap shot from the slot after Evan Rodrigues won a board battle to keep the puck in the offensive zone.

Edmonton and Florida then swapped goals over a 12-second span later in the period — Corey Perry scoring for the Oilers on the power play before Rodrigues poked a puck past Stuart Skinner following a Brandon Montour shot on the following shift — to make the score 4-2 after two periods.

Ekman-Larsson got Florida within one goal 4:04 into the third period when he buried a behind-the-net feed from Tkachuk but the Panthers couldn’t get that final goal to tie the game and Edmonton sealed the win with a McDavid empty-netter in the final seconds of regulation.

“We were down in that game and we kept pushing, kept coming back and gave ourselves a chance to come back in that game,” Ekman-Larsson said.

Added Maurice: “We gave up [four] shots in the third period. We were pretty good,” Maurice said. “Momentum’s not an issue. We played a helluva game. We gave up a shorthanded goal. That’s gotta stop. That’s two [in the series]. We got some sticks on some hands there for the first time and ended up in the penalty box for it. So we’re going to have to be real mindful of that because we know that’s going to lead to a penalty. And then after that our five-on-five game was pretty good. ... I didn’t mind our game. I thought we were all right. We should be intensely interested in the next one and see how that’s played.”


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