< Back to 68k.news US front page

The Panthers Kept The Faith | Defector

Original source (on modern site) | Article images: [1]

The first half of Game 2 was played in a way that the Florida Panthers felt very comfortable with—except for the fact that they weren't winning. It's hard to say that they actually performed better in the game's final 30 minutes, but that's where they found all their rewards, scoring four unanswered including an empty-netter to beat the Oilers 4-1 and take both games in Sunrise for an imposing 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final.

While Game 1 on Saturday was an out-of-character win for the Cats, coming as it did off savvy counterattacking and heroic feats by Sergei Bobrovsky in net, Game 2 felt closer to the blueprint of a suffocating Panthers win. At 5-on-5, this ferocious team out-attempted Edmonton 14-7 in the first period and then 18-8 in the second before switching into a more conservative style at the end. While the Oil boys could manufacture some chances with Connor McDavid out on the ice, the Panthers' superior depth helped them control the majority of possession and hold their foes' third and fourth forward lines to zero shots on goal.

This was a night when Edmonton had to make the most out of their chances, and for a while, that was exactly the story of the game. The Oilers appeared to take a debilitating blow when Warren Foegele got a misconduct for a knee to Eetu Luostarinen, but after that five-minute penalty kill was partially negated by a two-minute tripping call against Florida, Mattias Ekholm broke out of his own zone and scored on his team's first shot—one that Game 1's Bobrovsky would have smothered without a second thought. Sometimes, this is the kind of momentum shift that wins you a game and transforms a series. On Monday, it was just the prelude to Florida's domination.

Despite regular pressure and repeated challenges to Stuart Skinner in goal, the Panthers stayed behind until midway through the second. Still, they never showed a sign of shakiness or frustration. As back-to-back Eastern Conference champs, Florida has earned its confidence and wielded an unbreakable team spirit through a postseason where they've just worn groups down with their aggression and conditioning. The stat that the broadcasts love right now is the Panthers' goal differential across periods in the playoffs: -3 in the first, +8 in the second, and +17 in the third. Not everybody's got a body like them. This is a team that knows it can erode whomever they're facing, and for that reason a 1-0 deficit in a Stanley Cup Final game is just an opportunity for a future lead. Niko Mikkola, one of the quieter defenders, just happened to be the guy who broke through, notching his first filled-net goal since November as he jumped on a drop pass from Anton Lundell and powered it by Skinner for the equalizer.

The game stayed 1-1 at the second intermission, but with the Oilers struggling to gain a foothold, the third felt like it was just waiting for a Panther to reach out and seize the moment. Evan Rodrigues, a bit of a journeyman who's been fused into the team's backbone this year, snagged both the game-winner and then some extra breathing room. Just three minutes in, on a sequence that again spotlighted Florida's determination, Rodrigues refused to accept a change of possession in the offensive zone and fired a quick shot after interrupting a pass to gain the 2-1 advantage.

On the power play nine minutes later, Rodrigues tipped a pretty deflection past Skinner after Lundell drew a ton of attention away from the slot. That 3-1 insurance meant Florida could be a little less stressed when they'd soon allow a McDavid breakaway, then suffer a delay of game penalty. An empty-net tally from Aaron Ekblad gave the game its final score and sent Edmonton back home with the weight of the world in their luggage.

"I thought they went up a level and we didn't match it today," McDavid said in the postgame.

The Panthers still have to win two more out of five, and after a third-period hit by Leon Draisaitl, they'll potentially have to weather the worrying loss of their captain Aleksander Barkov, who's both fueled the offense and locked up the top Oilers stars. But as they've emerged victorious in five straight high-pressure contests, and won nine of their last 10 regulation games, these Florida rats have made what looks like an airtight case for themselves as the deserving best team in the NHL. All they have to do now is stay the course.

< Back to 68k.news US front page