Dave Hyde: Panthers are the new kings of hockey after Game 7 magic vs. Oilers

Dave Hyde, South Florida Sun-Sentinel on

Published in Hockey

SUNRISE, Fla. — Finally, stunningly, it was over. Gloves and sticks flew in the air. Arms and bodies wrapped around each other. The Florida Panthers celebrated behind their goal at the center of the hockey world, their big night won, their long climb to the top done.

Move over, Miami Heat. Make way, you old Florida Marlins. Give some room, you ancient kings of the Miami Dolphins.

There’s a new champion in town.

The Panthers beat Edmonton, 2-1, in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night, and the accompanying emotion was more than joy over the franchise’s first championship or pride in the manner the Panthers played this final night.

It also was, in a word, whew.

That’s what the caption should have read above the rare air the relieved Panthers breathed as champions. Whew. They recovered from losing three straight games this series. Whew. They didn’t become the second NHL team and first since 1942 to blow a 3-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final.

This became more than a hockey story as this series played out and the Panthers lost their series lead, frustrating game by game. It became a story of controlling demons and trusting talents. It became a story of a team’s determination, no matter what was thrown their way, even if was their collective anxiety felt tangible by the time Monday night arrived.

Can a building feel nervous? Amerant Bank Arena seemed to in the tense minutes before Monday’s game. That wasn’t helped by loud pockets of foreign cheers.

“Let’s go Oilers,’’ chanted the hundreds of Edmonton fans who made the cross-continental trip.

“Let’s go Panthers,’’ home fans chanted back.

And so the give and take, the answer and responses, already began.

On this magical night, against this high-flying Edmonton team, it took Carter Verhaeghe shaking off a quiet series by scoring less than five minutes into the game to make it 1-0, the first time in three games the Panthers had a lead.

It then took shaking off a breakaway goal by Edmonton’s Mattias Janmark two minutes later that evened the score, the emotions and each team’s belief this was their night.

It took goalie Sergei Bobrovsky playing back to his form of most of these playoffs, not just making saves but even swatting a puck that popped in the air front of him to the harmless corner.


It took Sam Reinhart, another quiet Panther this series, rifling a shot past Edmonton goalie Stuart Skinner late in the second period to make it 2-1.

So, there were 20 minutes left in the hockey season. The only questions left were if the Panthers could close out this night or Edmonton had one more dramatic comeback left in it. Connor McDavid, the sport’s best player, was silent this night. Did he have something left?

The minutes ticked by, the noise went up, fans beginning to stand with under eight minutes to play. An Edmonton shot resulted in a save by Bobrovsky, and a loose puck in the crease, as McDavid and the Oilers leading goal scorer, Zach Hyman, pushed for it and the Panther tried to cover it. Nine bodies crammed in the goalmouth in various positions when the whistle blew.

Bobrovsky then fell to the ice and lost his stick as Edmonton buzzed the net with under four minutes to play. Edmonton’s Evan Bouchard moved in for a shot that didn’t make it through a tangle of bodies. Another threat gone.

It was that kind of finish to the season’s finish. Can you play bigger on a bigger stage than Bobrovsky did this night? Can you do more for your team, your fans and your team’s legacy than Reinhart and Verhaeghe?

Two minutes left. Reinhart stepped in front of Edmonton’s Warren Foegele to cause an offsides.

Skinner was pulled from the Edmonton net. The seconds seemed like minutes. But there it was on the clock, the fans counting loud now, “Three … two .. one …”

This was the moment the Panthers waited forever to have since back when this franchise was a punchline, since when the coaches came and went quicker than the players, since they went a quarter-century without sniffing a postseason series win.

They then waited three more nerve-wracking losses to Edmonton in recent days. This night could have sent their legacies to Seventh Hell. It was Seventh Heaven instead. They got the dream, not the nightmare.

What a night. What a series. What a season that will live on and on. Just go back on the Panthers timeline to when H. Wayne Huizenga bought the team, when they lost the 1996 Stanley Cup Final in its third season. That series lives on in this one.

“That’s when I fell in love with hockey,’’ Panthers veteran Kyle Okposo said. “My parents let me stay up for the triple overtime game, the (Colorado) score from the right point in overtime. I watched that whole run and that’s when I really fell in love with the game.

“It was the first time where I saw people lift the trophy and, obviously I’m 8 years old, I can’t comprehend the emotions that they’re going through. But when you watch people lift it for 27 years you can get a pretty good sense what the emotion is like it for those men after what they put themselves through.”

Now he threw his gloves in the air. Now they all did. As the seconds left the clock, the rats flew on the ice and a new champion was in town.

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