‘It hurts’: Florida Panthers inching toward nightmare collapse

Warren Foegele had a goal and an assist while Stuart Skinner made 20 saves and added a helper of his own as the Edmonton Oilers stay alive, beating the Florida Panthers 5-1 to force a Game 7.

EDMONTON — Two high-powered dramas are unfolding in real time on the grandest stage.

In one corner, you have the believers: The Edmonton Oilers, whose attempt to complete just the second reverse-sweep in a championship series in the history of major North American pro sports is so romantic, Disney might turn down the script for being a little too rich.

In the other corner, you have the shook: The Florida Panthers, staring directly into the abyss, facing the calibre of missed opportunity that could well haunt a man his entire life.

General manager Bill Zito has switched from launching water bottles to delivering death stares so chilling, they could burn a hole through Stuart Skinner — except, the way he’s going, the goalie would probably get a blocker on it.

Head coach Paul Maurice is cursing out officials and condensing his answers to the media, noting facetiously that he has “the opportunity to meet with you people five more times before the next game.”

And fading star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, he of three consecutive losses and three consecutive sub-.845-save-percentage efforts, is… well, who knows? Because the Panthers are sheltering a major character in this drama from the microphones and cameras.

Four cracks at glory have shrivelled to one.

After another rocking party for the home crowd Friday night at Rogers Place, where the Oilers thumped the Panthers 5-1 (with two empty-netters), a tightening is afoot.

And not just in the 3-3 series count, which will give sports fans a best-of-one Monday in Sunrise.

Silent and glassy-eyed, the Panthers cycled off some lactic acid and walked out of the rink from Game 6.

“It’s tough. Obviously, a tough one to take,” said Carter Verhaeghe, who chose the right words.

“I think we’re a confident group. They’re here for a reason, we’re here for a reason, and, I mean, it’s the Stanley Cup Final. They’re a really good team, and it’s for us to come back and respond next game.”

Absolutely, the Panthers are capable of just that. Of making this column moot.

Win in seven, and they’ll be immortalized. We’ll celebrate their mental fortitude and wait for the Stanley Cup to wind its way down the A1A to the Elbo Room.

Lose four in a row — which is something these Panthers did in January and March — and they’ll be immortalized as well.

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Most of our parents weren’t alive to witness history’s only collapse of this calibre: The 1942 Detroit Red Wings blew a 3-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

How can the weight of the opportunity to lose not worm its way into players and coaches’ minds, and take up space where the opportunity to win was the only thought eight days ago — before the Stanley Cup’s airmiles began piling up like an Albertan 50/50 draw total?

“Well, right now, if you walked into the room, there won’t be a lot of happy people,” Maurice said. “I’m not worried about what it does tonight. It doesn’t have to be right tonight. 

“You’ve suffered a defeat. You feel it. It hurts. You lick your wounds, and we start building that back tomorrow. But who you are tonight means nothing to who you’re going to be two days from now.”

Who the Panthers were on Friday won’t cut it. 

For the third straight game, they gave up the first goal and got chasing. Their power-play is in shambles. And as Edmonton has earned an edge in middle ice, Florida’s first shot on goal by a forward didn’t arrive until the contest was 31 minutes old.  

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They also had their potential comeback moment thwarted by a painfully close offside challenge by Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch, as a perceived, crowd-quieting Aleksander Barkov goal was wiped of the board in Period 2.

Maurice was livid in the moment, maintaining that none of the angles available to his bench showed Sam Reinhart a sliver offside. 

“The linesperson informed me that it was the last clip that they got where they made the decision that shows it’s offside. I don’t have those,” Maurice said, during his longest post-game answer. “I was upset after the call based on what I see at my feet, what my video person looks at. There was no way I would’ve challenged that if it was reversed. There was no way I thought you could conclusively say that was offside. 

“I don’t know what the Oilers get; I don’t know what the league gets. I just know that when I would’ve had to have challenged that based on what I saw, I would not have challenged. I’m not saying it’s not offside. We’ll get still frames, bring in the CIA, we’ll figure it out. But in the 30 seconds that I would’ve made that call, I would not have challenged.”

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In an alternate universe, perhaps Barkov’s goal stands and the Panthers rally.

But in this universe, the hard and real one, Florida is facing its first elimination game of these playoffs. And the first time in 82 years that a hockey team could unravel in such spectacular fashion.

“We’re going home to play a Game 7 for the Stanley Cup Final. I think any time you do that, everyone’s going to be jacked up and excited, and it’s going to be an awesome game,” Verhaeghe said. 

“You dream of it as a little kid.”

Little kids also have nightmares.

Fox’s Fast Five

• Edmonton’s penalty kill has been nothing short of spectacular here. It’s burned 18 of Florida’s 19 power-play opportunities and has scored twice itself for a plus-1 goal differential.

“Our PK wins us games most nights,” Leon Draisaitl said. “That’s just a fact.”

These aren’t the Oilers you thought you knew.

“Even before I was here, the Oilers have always been known for scoring. That comes with the power play,” Zach Hyman said. 

“For us to have gotten to this point, we’ve needed to flip our mindset with regards to defending, and a big part of that is the penalty kill and (assistant) Mark Stuart and Kris coming in and establishing pairs on the penalty kill and really giving those guys confidence to go out and do the job. The penalty kill has been phenomenal — probably more so than anyone thought it could.”

• Connor McDavid (nine assists, 11 points) gets one more game to take a run at Wayne Gretzky’s Stanley Cup Final series records from 1988 (10 assists, 13 points).

• Whatever mojo Matthew Tkachuk had running in Game 5 vanished.

He was minus-3 and registered just a single shot on goal in Game 6, and he also got dragged off the ice by Mattias Janmark in coincidental roughing calls. Tkachuk has made a big impact in one of six games so far.

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• As tough as the result was for Florida, Barkov was fantastic.

He scored a beautiful goal and would’ve had a second had Reinhart not been offside by a hair. He helped keep McDavid (zero shots) off the scoresheet, and Florida outshot Edmonton 6-2 when his line was on the ice.

“He would be closer to Mats Sundin in work ethic, practice habits. All the things that some superstars don’t have to do, he does it. He is easily,” Maurice said, “the most coachable, because there’s not 10 things you’ve got to coach. 

“He moves around the room with no ego. It’s not that he doesn’t have one; it’s that he never makes you feel that you’re less important than he is. He is as humble a leader as I’ve ever had, but also very competitive and very intense. He’s got that wonderful mix.”

• Don’t look now, but Skinner is earning his way onto Conn Smythe ballots.

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