Stanley Cup Final Game 7 Notebook: Panthers make one emotional lineup change

Florida Panthers head coach Paul Maurice discusses the mentality he wants his team to have ahead of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final and encourages them to play freely.

SUNRISE, Fla. — During the Florida Panthers‘ final, intense practice of the season Sunday, Kyle Okposo did not take line rushes with the main group.

So, when Paul Maurice glided over to the 2024 Stanley Cup Final’s eldest skater for a lengthy chat after the long whistle, one assumed the head coach was breaking some bad news to the respected veteran.

Okposo had already been scratched in favour of the younger, speedier Nick Cousins in Game 6. And, with no guarantees for the future, it appeared as if the 36-year-old would be wearing a suit for what might be the final game of a wonderful career.

But the player-coach chat ended with wide smiles and an encouraging butt-tap. Okposo was … happy?

Okposo was drawing back in.

“I grabbed my son today, who’s eight, and just said: ‘You know what I was doing when I was your age? I was in the driveway with my Rollerblades on, pretending I was in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. How special is it you’re going to be able to go to the game?’ ” Okposo said.

How often did that boy wheels-snipe the Cup-clincher on the streets of Saint Paul, Minnesota?

“A lot,” Okposo smiled. “I mean, my buddies weren’t that good so… a lot of memories flooding back about that.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find a player in Monday night’s Sunrise finale with a deeper appreciation of what this game means than Okposo.

The 17-season, 1,051-game vet had only made it past Round 1 once prior to getting rented from Buffalo for this run. Heck, his teams had only made the dance three times.

A lifelong student of the game, Okposo knows exactly how many Cup finals have gone the distance.

“Eighteen,” he said. “So, there’s only 18 different sets of players that have experienced this match. Gotta embrace every second of it.”

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The Panthers will dress one of those rare Game 7 champs: Vladimir Tarasenko, who kissed the Cup in 2019 with the St. Louis Blues and is getting a promotion to Florida’s struggling top power-play unit on Monday.

Okposo has been picking Tarasenko’s mind about how that series unfolded in ’19.

“It’s just so interesting, like, their mindset,” Okposo said. “They had a chance to close Game 6 on home ice — and they didn’t. And they kinda got pounded, and then they go back to Boston and win.”

Tarasneko’s Blues lost Game 6 by a score of 5-1.

Tarasenko’s Panthers lost Game 6 by a score of 5-1.

Family matters

Safe to say, the Stanley Cup will never log more air miles than it has this June, maxing out the farthest-distance final with the maximum number of elimination games.

The tally: 36,000-plus kilometres (22,500 miles) have been travelled.

Knowing the Cup was in the arena, the Panthers booked a separate family charter for Game 4 in Edmonton. But the club did not do the same for Game 6.

A win for the superstitious and carbon footprints.

“It’s a long flight for them,” says forward Steven Lorentz. “They came, flew out in the morning, six hours, watched the game, we got waxed (8-1). Had to turn back, fly home.

“The real heroes were the moms who took the kids on the flight. Kids are crying and stuff. Those women are superheroes. We’d obviously love to share with them if we were to clinch Edmonton, but we also understand that it’s a lot. And if we were to have won, we can celebrate this summer. That didn’t happen. So, we just take the next step and hopefully we can get it done (in Sunrise).”

Chokers or champions

Everyone talks about the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, the only team that rallied from a 3-0 Cup Final deficit to win it all. No one talks about the pain the ’42 Detroit Red Wings must have felt after faulting on four match points.

The Panthers are walking a grave line here.

Their only option is to spin positive. To view this as an opportunity, not a disaster.

“That’s what makes this whole thing awesome is the context of it,” Maurice said.

“Nobody ever has played on a backdoor rink in Canada and scored the Game 3 overtime winner in the qualifying round, OK? It’s one game. All this excites you. And that is the context of this game, and we will live in that context.”

Matthew Tkachuk points out how rare it is for one team to slip into a three-game losing skid and still have a chance to win the Cup. That applies to both sides here.

“Somehow both of us have an opportunity still. So, very exciting. Leave it all out there. Desperation on both sides,” says Tkachuk, trying to keep his mind in small places.

“It really doesn’t come down to that huge, big picture at all. It comes down to that first shift, your first period. Come out. Play as fast as we possibly can to start the game, because we know that’s what makes us successful.

“We’re more excited for that part — to come out and play in front of our own fan base, who is so crucial for us. We know they’ve been waiting for this game. I mean, it’s probably the biggest game NHL game in however many years, and our fans are jacked up for it.

“We can’t wait.”

7 fun Game 7 stats

• The Oilers can become the second team in history to win the Stanley Cup after sitting 10-plus points out of a playoff spot during the regular season. The first team? The 2018-19 Blues, which featured the aforementioned Tarasenko.

• Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner is undefeated in Games 4-7 of these playoffs (10-0).

• South Florida has already hosted two Game 7s in a championship round. Both the 1997 Florida Marlins and 2013 Miami Heat lifted the trophy.

• The Panthers lost a Game 7 at home in 2012, in double overtime. The winning goal-scorer? Current Oiler (then Devil) Adam Henrique.

• Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the longest-tenured Oiler, was drafted first overall by Edmonton on this day (June 24) 13 years ago.

• The team that scores first is 149-48 (.756) in the 197 all-time Game 7s in the playoffs (2-1 in 2024), including a 12-5 (.706) record in the 17 all-time Game 7s in the Cup Final.

• Home teams own a 115-82 (.584) edge in the 197 all-time Game 7s in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2-1 in 2024), including a 12-5 (.706) advantage in the 17 all-time Game 7s in the Stanley Cup Final.

He said it…

Paul Maurice, asked if the outcome of Game 7 will define his legacy: “I will let you know at the end.”

Florida Panthers projected Game 7 lineup:

Verhaeghe – Barkov – Reinhart
Rodrigues – Bennett – Tkachuk
Luostarinen – Lundell – Tarasenko
Lomberg – Stenlund – Okposo

Forsling – Ekblad
Mikkola – Montour
Ekman-Larsson – Kulikov

Bobrovsky starts

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