Desperate Panthers grind out first-ever Stanley Cup: ‘I wanted to feel it’

Relive all the epic goals, stunning upsets, and marvelous moments from the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs, soundtracked by the Killers' 'All These Things That I've Done'.

SUNRISE, Fla. — Desire alone wasn’t enough.

Desire with a splash desperation, however?

Now, there’s a recipe.

Turns out, the Florida Panthers needed to be staring headfirst at an elimination-slash-humiliation game of their own to summon the energy and focus necessary to drive the stake into the heart of an Edmonton Oilers club that left it all out there — blood, sweat, and tears.

Yes, as valiantly as the banged-up, rise-from-the-dead, unshakable-belief Oilers battled to bend and extend the 2024 Stanley Cup Final into a seven-game series, to plant a seed of doubt and drag ’em back to Alberta, these Panthers were simply too deep and too structured, too scarred and too far ahead, to dismantle completely.

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Fitting, then, that a team that lost it all in Vegas one year ago, like a tourist who doesn’t realize when to leave their ATM card at home, learned from past failure and smartened up at the last minute.

With a clinical 2-1 decision on home ice in Game 7 Monday, the Cats spun a gutting loss into a triumphant victory.

The first and only Stanley Cup in the organization’s 30-year history.

Third time’s a charm.

“I don’t know if I have the words to put it in perspective,” said Aaron Ekblad. The second-longest-serving Panther grew up enchanted by those championship runs by Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom. Drafted to a middling franchise playing to half-full arenas, the defenceman wondered if the franchise would ever figure out the formula. “Early on, you start to think it’s not even possible.”

And once the buzzer sounded, how did Ekblad feel? 

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“(Expletive) rights. We’re champions,” he said. “Nobody can take that away from us. I can’t (expletive) wait for that 20-year reunion with the boys. It’s gonna be incredible.”

The longest-serving Panther, Aleksander Barkov, is the poster boy for playing hockey The Right Way, which is precisely how Florida grinded this thing out. Ferocious forechecks. No cheating. Dialed-in goaltending. No let-up off the peddle.

“All the guys who were kind of grinding a little bit in this series that were struggling a little bit were good,” noted coach Paul Maurice.

That list begins with backbone Sergei Bobrovsky, who stopped 21 of 22 pucks flung his way and suddenly snapped back to Game 1 form.

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It was goalie coach Rob Tallas’s idea to have Bobrovsky skip practice Sunday and stay away from the rink, something he is loath to do.

“I changed my mindset,” Bobrovsky said. “I went home, played with the daughter. She’s my motivation. She’s my inspiration. Just relax, reset, come for the morning skate, and ready to go.”

Their names, along with those of all their teammates’, will soon be engraved in immortality alongside heroes past.

That includes unlikely champ and 17-year veteran Kyle Okposo, who’d won a grand total of one playoff round before his services got rented for this magical run.

Okposo, 36, remembers precisely when the Cup cast its spell. The year was 1996.

“The Panthers were a part of it, and my parents let me stay up for [Game 4],” he smiles. “Uwe Krupp scored from the right point in triple overtime. I watched that whole run, and that’s when I really fell in love with the game. I had watched and played for a couple years, but during that run is when I truly fell in love with hockey. That was the first time where I saw people lift the trophy.

“I’m eight years old. I don’t really know. 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 of what the emotion is like when those men lift that Cup after what they put themselves through to get there.”

Late on a Monday night in Sunrise, as the mercifully vindicated Maurice shook the hands of devastated young men wearing the logo of his teenage idols, the 57-year-old’s dream was realized in dramatic fashion.

Maurice thought back to December 2022, when the Panthers were out of the playoff picture, and a fed-up fan held up a sign mocking the team slogan at every whistle: TIME TO HUNT… FOR A NEW COACH.

“It’ll be at least one more year before that poster comes out — minimum,” Maurice quipped.

“I don’t feel like I won a Stanley Cup. I feel like I got a piece of one. Because you got a whole Stanley Cup, nobody’s coming to your house. You’re by yourself. I got a little piece of it. It was good.”

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It was nearly bad. Unspeakably bad.

Blowing “three match points,” as Barkov put it, and placing themselves on the precipice of an all-time choke job, the Cats scrounged one more life.

In what was the best and tightest game of the series — one heckuva hard-fought finale — the Panthers struck first on an expert tip by Carter Verhaeghe off an Evan Rodrigues shot.

Edmonton’s Mattias Janmark, a stud all series, knotted the score less than three minutes later, making no mistake dekeing Bobrovsky on a breakaway.

Sam Reinhart, who had been relatively quiet this final, sniped short-side on a second-period rush chance to reinstall Florida’s lead and dish goalie Stuart Skinner his first loss in any Game 4, 5, 6, or 7 all playoffs.

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“I haven’t had a drink in (expletive) three months,” Reinhart said. “I’ll drink anything at this point.”

Hockey’s best third-period team held that lead like a grudge, draining the clock until the gloves flew, the rats rained, and the happiest of hockey hug-a-thons began.

“Amazing,” Barkov said. “Like, it’s 20,000 people cheering for you, and you get to lift the Cup in front of them. It’s the best feeling.”

Yes, the Florida Panthers made history and avoided it all at once as the sun set in Sunrise.

The relief, the joy, the elation is all so blinding, Maurice purposely closed his eyes when he hoisted the Cup. Finally.

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“I wanted to feel it. I wanted to feel it, because I’ll forget a lot of things — who you were looking at, what you’re talking about. Just wanted to feel it,” Maurice said.

“I’ve seen that picture a million times. One of my favourite ones is watching Roddy Brind’Amour (in 2006), because I knew his long career. Never missed a workout. Grinded so hard. And it was the Oilers and it was Carolina, my old team, and Jim Rutherford. And then they keep showing that commercial. 

“They got the guys and the Stanley Cup, and you’re going: What the hell does that feel like? So, I closed my eyes because I wanted to feel it.”

And when the coach eventually opened his eyes and understood the feeling?

“The entire team was smiling at me.”

Fox’s Fast Five

• Barkov is the first Finnish captain to hoist the Stanley Cup.

“Sasha’s one guy we all want to be one day,” says teammate and protégé and countryman Anton Lundell. 

“You grow up watching his highlights. You go to practice, you want to do them the same way he does them. We all have idols. But I have to say, I think he’s the biggest idol in Finland.”

• Mr. Game Sven? With his sweet first-period deke, Sweden’s Janmark joined teammate Corey Perry as the only active NHLers with four goals in Game 7s. He was a beast all series.

• Perry becomes the first player to lose four finals with four different teams over five seasons. A run that may never be broken. (This despite extending the series by scoring the winner in Game 5.)

• Eleven years ago to the day — June 24, 2013 — a 16-year-old Connor McDavid hit send on this tweet:

• My Conn Smythe ballot: 1. Connor McDavid; 2. Aleksander Barkov; 3. Gustav Forsling.

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