July 21st, 2024

Oilers fall to Panthers 2-1 in Game 7 of Stanley Cup final: ‘Came that close’

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on June 24, 2024.

Florida Panthers forward Carter Verhaeghe (23) scores on Edmonton Oilers goaltender Stuart Skinner (74) during first period of Game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in Sunrise, Fla., on Monday, June 24, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

SUNRISE, Fla. – Connor McDavid barely spoke above a whisper. Leon Draisaitl had tears in his eyes.

The Oilers never stopped pushing – from a deep hole early in the season to a Stanley Cup final deficit that seemed insurmountable

Edmonton, in the end, simply ran out of gas. Florida, meanwhile, has its first title.

Sam Reinhart scored the winner in Game 7 of the NHL’s championship round as the Panthers beat the Oilers 2-1 on a memorable Monday to take the back-and-forth series 4-3.

“Proud of the way we fought all year,” said McDavid, who put up gaudy numbers in the playoffs with an eye-popping 42 points. “Behind the 8-ball almost immediately. We fought an uphill climb for months and months and months.

“Just “¦ sucks.”

Edmonton’s superstar captain dragged his team into the fight after falling behind 3-0 in the final, including consecutive, record-setting four-point performances in Game 4 and Game 5.

“Just the resilience of the group,” McDavid said of what he will remember about these Oilers. “We went through a lot. Came that close.”

Carter Verhaeghe added a goal and assist for the Panthers, who lost in the final in 1996 and again last spring. Sergei Bobrovsky made 23 saves. Head coach Paul Maurice, in his second season with Florida, won the Cup for the first time after beginning his career in 1995.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Panthers centre Sam Bennett said. “A moment I’ve dreamt about for my entire life.”

Mattias Janmark replied for the Oilers. Stuart Skinner stopped 19 shots as the title drought for Canadian-based teams now stands at 31 years dating back to the Montreal Canadiens’ victory in 1993.

“Amazing group of guys, so much character,” Draisaitl said. “We stuck with it all year and battled all the way to the end.”

On the other side, the Panthers avoided sports infamy by finally putting Edmonton away after allowing their 3-0 stranglehold in the series to wither away with the Cup on site a fourth time.

“Unbelievable,” Reinhart said. “No sweeter place to do it than South Florida.”

Edmonton was aiming to become the fifth club to win a best-of-seven series after trailing 3-0, and just the second in the final, joining the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs some 82 years ago.

“It’s one win away,” Oilers defenceman Mattias Ekholm said. “It’s one period away. It’s one goal away. The details are so slim.”

McDavid was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as post-season MVP – the first player from the losing side since J.S. Giguere with Anaheim in 2003.

“Greatest player to ever play, in my books,” Draisailt said. “Single-handedly turned our franchise around.”

Edmonton fans made the long trek south in the days ahead of an improbable Game 7, painting an orange-and-blue strip across the region before heading out to Amerant Bank Arena’s sprawling parking lots in Sunrise to tailgate.

“They deserve to win just as much as any of us,” said McDavid, his burnt-orange playoff beard soon to be a just a memory. “They were with us the whole way and never stopped believing. Disappointed we couldn’t come through.”

“Let’s Go Oilers!” chants started 40 minutes before warm-ups as jersey-clad masses assembled along the glass and around the tunnel to the team’s locker room. Panthers supporters responded in kind with deafening noise of their own in the minutes before the opening faceoff.

Florida snapped a 1-1 tie at 15:11 of the second period after a breathtaking, back-and-forth six minutes when Reinhart beat Skinner for his 10th goal of the playoffs.

That breakthrough came after the Oilers had a number of chances. Edmonton also poured pressure on Bobrovsky during an earlier power play, including an Evan Bouchard one-timer the veteran netminder – pulled in Game 4 and far from his best in the next two starts – swallowed up to roaring approval.

“We’re an inch away from going ahead 2-1 right before they go ahead,” McDavid said. “We had our looks.”

The Oilers tried to push in the third with plenty of zone time, but the Panthers protected Bobrovsky’s crease, including on great chances for McDavid and Zach Hyman, before spilling off the bench to celebrate.

Florida went ahead 1-0 in the NHL’s 18th all-time Game 7 in a final at 4:27 of the first when Verhaeghe tipped home his 11th inside the crackling rink.

But the Oilers responded at 6:44 when Janmark took a stretch pass from Cody Ceci and buried his fourth to send Edmonton’s travelling contingent into a frenzy before Bouchard blasted a shot of the post.

McDavid’s 42 points in the playoffs are the most ever by a player in a single post-season not named Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux. He also set a record with 34 assists, but was held off the scoresheet in the final two contests.

The Oilers, who last made the final in 2006 and last topped the NHL mountain in 1990, fell short in their quest for the franchise’s sixth Cup.

A team that had a disastrous start to the schedule and went through a November coaching change, Edmonton responded with a 16-game winning streak and two other eight-game runs to not only make the playoffs, but finish second in the Pacific Division.

The Oilers disposed of Los Angeles in five games and Vancouver in the second round despite trailing that series three times in an all-Canadian matchup that went the distance. Edmonton then fell behind Dallas 2-1 in the Western Conference final before winning three straight to take that matchup in six.

Despite being down 3-0 to Florida in the final following a 4-3 home loss on June 13, the Oilers felt they played well enough to be up 2-1 in the series.

Head coach Kris Knoblauch confidently said before Game 4 he was looking forward to the next 10 days his team had together.

Edmonton backed up those words hours later with an 8-1 thumping of the Panthers and secured a gutsy 4-3 road victory in Game 5 to drag the Panthers back to Alberta where the Oilers picked up a 5-1 win Friday to force Monday’s winner-take-all finale.

They just couldn’t clear the final hurdle.

“Showed all year long that we could fight back, even in the most dire situations,” McDavid said. “Tough to be down three and tough to string four in a row against a good team like that, but we were right there.

“Right there.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2024.

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