Greg Cote: Champions! Epic rise as Panthers win 1st Stanley Cup, deny Connor McDavid coronation.

Greg Cote, Miami Herald on

Published in Hockey

SUNRISE, Fla. — No home game in South Florida sports history has weighed more. Felt heavier.

And all of that weight lifted off the Florida Panthers late Monday night in the Sunrise home arena filled with the sounds of rapture, and relief. The weight lifted because so did the NHL’s Stanley Cup championship trophy for the first time in the club’s 30-season history.

With a 2-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers in the winner-take-all Game 7 of the Final, a franchise officially announced itself as a force in hockey. The team from the tropics, from the suburb once best known for a shopping mall, had arrived.

Across the decades and leagues in Greater Miami’s sports history, no game played in our own backyard, ever, had presented such a stark, all-or-nothing extreme of unprecedented joy or epic humiliation — no in-between.

That sounds like hyperbole. It might be understatement.

The Panthers on Monday night would raise the Cup as first-time NHL champions ... or fail and be sports’ new face of choking, of blowing it, of having everything in front of you, including your home fans, and letting everybody down.

Nobody said life was fair ... sports included.

“That’s what makes this whole thing awesome,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice had said.

Awesome if you win, awful if you don’t, and either reality on you for eternity. Defining you. Lifting you up forever, or branding you with permanent regret.

The Panthers beat more than Edmonton on this night.

They denied all of Canada, the hockey-inventing country that has not seen one of its teams raise the Cup since 1993.

They denied Connor McDavid, currently the consensus greatest player in the sport, his first Stanley Cup in a nine-year career, instead only magnifying the one giant hole on his resume.

And they surely denied the TV networks and most hockey fans who came for the ceremonial coronation of McDavid but instead watched the non-traditional interloper-franchise lift the Cup.

Most all of the pressure, that weight, was on the Panthers.

The Cats had led this best-of-7 Final by 3-0, seemingly on cruise control, then three straight Edmonton Oilers wins left Florida careening into a home Game 7 — and their fans equal parts hopeful and terrified.

It felt like Florida was trailing 3-3 entering the final Final game. The last three losses by a combined 18-5 marked the most lopsided three straight games in Final history.

All time in hockey history teams with a 3-0 lead had won the series in 206 of 210 occurrences, or 98%. Teams with that lead in a Final were 27-1, the lone exception in 1942.

The Cats Monday faced what would have been an epic, unforgiving collapse. National shame.


Instead they won only the eighth major professional championship in 157 combined seasons for the Heat (three), Dolphins (two), Marlins (two) and Panthers (first).

In doing so they won for Maurice his first NHL championship in three decades as a coach, on his third Final try including last year’s with Florida.

“I need one,” he’d said of what a Cup would mean to him.

His Panthers rose up when they had no other choice but the shamed alternative.

Florida parlayed a strong second period into a 2-1 lead.

A hard-earned penalty kill included a couple of saves by Sergei Bobrovsky.

Then Sam Reinhart scored on a wrist shot off assists by Carter Verhaeghe and Dmitry Kuliov. It was only Reinhart’s second goal of the Final after a team-leading 57 in the regular season.

Florida first lit the lamp and an already-lit home crowd 4:37 into the game on a Verhaeghe tip-in goal off assists by Evan Rodrigues and Matthew Tkachuk. Verhaeghe hadn’t scored since Game 1 of the Final, so the horn sounding for his shot was welcome, indeed.

The crowd, begging for an early lead, was euphoric. It wouldn’t last. Well, it did for about two minutes.

Edmonton tied it 1-1 at 6:44 on a Mattias Janmark wrist-shot goal. The reaction was a bit jarring. Save for no horn, Oilers fans made big noise. Obviously, many, many Panthers fans opted for a profit on the ticket after-market over supporting their team in a Game 7. (Y’all know who you are. And sad of you.)

The third period was a matter of hanging. The tension in the building was nerve-wracking. There should have been a cardiologist on-call in every section.

This was the 18th Game 7 all time in local sports and the 12th at home — but only the third ultimate Game 7 (all at home) with championship-or-bust stakes. It follows the Marlins’ 1997 World Series win and the Heat’s 2013 NBA Finals clincher.

This one is bigger than those other two. The Marlins were in only their fifth season, their fans hardly long suffering. The Heat had won two previous league titles.

This also was the NHL’s 18th all-time Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final. The home team was 12-2 before losing three in a row, most recently in 2019.

The Panthers were the betting favorite to continue that streak — the slight betting underdog Monday to the mighty McDavid despite being at home.

But it was the Florida Panthers who raised the only trophy that mattered.

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