Thursday, June 20, 2024

Stanley Cup Final: Panthers cruise, take 2-0 series lead on Oilers

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By TIM REYNOLDS AP Sports Writer

SUNRISE, Fla. — Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl knocked Florida’s Aleksander Barkov out of the game. The Panthers made sure they responded by landing the bigger blow.

And the Stanley Cup Final took a heated turn Monday night.

Evan Rodrigues had a pair of third-period goals, Niko Mikkola and Aaron Ekblad also scored and the Panthers used yet another airtight finishing kick to pull away and beat the Oilers, 4-1, for a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final.

Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 18 shots for Florida, which was 1-8 all-time in Cup final games before this series started – and now is two wins away from capturing its first championship. Score through two games: Florida 7, Edmonton 1.

“A six-man job against the best players in the world,” Ekblad said.

But the win came with a price for Florida as the Panthers lost Barkov, their captain when Edmonton forward Draisaitl launched toward him midway through the third period and hit him in the head. Barkov remained down for some time, needed help getting to the bench and went down the tunnel for the Florida locker room for further evaluation.

Florida coach Paul Maurice offered no update on Barkov’s condition, and was far more tight-lipped than he tends to be after wins.

“This isn’t ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’,” Maurice said of the Barkov hit. “My feelings don’t matter.”

Mattias Ekholm scored and Stuart Skinner stopped 25 shots for the Oilers, who now have to buck some serious history.

Edmonton has only successfully rallied from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series once – against San Jose in Round 2 of the 2006 playoffs. And teams that start the Stanley Cup Final down 2-0 have come back to win only five times in 54 previous situations.

“I think we feel that we came here and played well enough that we should have a split,” Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch said. “It doesn’t always happen.”

The series resumes with Game 3 in Edmonton on Thursday night.

“We can certainly be better,” Draisaitl said. “It starts with me. … I certainly have a lot more to give. Not my best tonight. Obviously, owning that.”

Draisaitl was given only a minor penalty for roughing on the hit that knocked Barkov from the game. Rodrigues got a tip-in goal to make it 3-1, the first power-play score Edmonton allowed in its last 34 times being down a man.

Connor McDavid had a chance to get Edmonton within one on a breakaway with about 6 minutes left. He got stopped by Bobrovsky, and then he and Matthew Tkachuk tussled a bit along the boards after the play – the Panthers still steaming over the hit on Barkov.

“I have no response or comment on that,” Tkachuk said when asked what he thought of Draisaitl’s hit on Barkov, and if he had a level of concern that Florida’s captain could miss time.

Said McDavid of the hit: “I thought it was part of the game.”

And added Ekblad: “We’re hoping he’ll be fine.”

Emotions were high all night. Edmonton’s Warren Foegele was ejected in the first period for a knee-on-knee hit that knocked Florida’s Eetu Luostarinen from the game briefly; that ejection, plus an injury to Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse left them with only 11 forwards and five defensemen for much of the game.

Rodrigues scored early in the third off a turnover for a 2-1 lead, setting the tone for yet another Florida comeback. The Panthers – who trailed 1-0 after 20 minutes – are now an NHL-best 5-2 when trailing after one period in these playoffs.

Ekblad sealed it with an empty-netter with 2:28 left.

“It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to be difficult,” McDavid said. “I’m excited to see what our group’s made of.”

Just like Game 1, one team cashed in on its first shot. It was Florida on Saturday, and Edmonton this time.

There wasn’t much to it: Ekholm skated nearly the full length of the ice with the teams playing 4-on-4, taking a harmless-looking shot that got between Bobrovsky’s leg pads and squirted into the back of the net. McDavid – playing in the building where he got drafted in 2015 – got one of the assists on the goal, his 27th assist of this postseason.

Midway through the second, the Panthers knotted it up. Mikkola had two shots on a shift; one was at the wrong net, and the other more than atoned for that near-blunder.

Moments after he inadvertently wheeled a backhand toward Bobrovsky – who was alert enough to save his teammate from the embarrassment of an own goal – Mikkola handled a delivery from Anton Lundell and blasted it past Skinner to pull Florida into a 1-1 tie.

“Bob was awake,” Mikkola said.

Shots were 22-7 Florida after 40 minutes, the Oilers – who led the league in shots on goal this season – being held to a season-low entering the third. Bobrovsky was tested a ton more in the third than he was in the first two periods, but was up to the task again and yielded two goals or fewer for the 12th time in his last 13 games.

And Florida, for the first time, is two wins from the Cup.

“It’s special,” Rodrigues said. “Trying to embrace it. Trying to stay in the moment. That’s two big wins for our team, but I think we’ve already turned the page and are getting ready for Game 3.”

OILERS HELD IN CHECK

The Oilers left Game 1 feeling pretty good. They were shut out three goals to none, but it took a monumental performance from Bobrovsky to neutralize their offensive firepower.

The Oilers weren’t shut out Monday night, but the result was the same.

“We just have to take it one game at a time,” Knoblauch said. “I don’t see any reason to panic or do anything drastic. If we win one of these, which I think we were capable of doing, we’re really happy. So I don’t want to get too caught up in we’re down two-nothing.”

One of the highest-scoring teams in the NHL, Edmonton has managed just one goal in the first two games of the final.

Edmonton’s seven shots on goal through 40 minutes of Game 2 were the fewest by a team through two periods of a Stanley Cup Final since Game 6 of the 2006 championship series when the Carolina Hurricanes managed that many on goal against the Oilers.

That’s one game after Edmonton outshot the Panthers 32-18 in a Game 1 performance that McDavid described as a confidence booster.

McDavid leads all postseason scorers with 32 points but still has not scored in this series despite numerous opportunities, including on a breakaway late in the third Monday night, only to be denied by Bobrovsky again.

“We’ve got to be better,” McDavid said. “I thought they went up a level (from Game 1) and we didn’t match them today.”

Knoblauch said the Panthers have made it tough on Edmonton defensively, but playing shorthanded also hurt them.

Edmonton’s Warren Foegele was ejected in the first period for a knee-on-knee hit that knocked Florida’s Eetu Luostarinen from the game briefly. Defenseman Darnell Nurse was injured in that period, leaving the Oilers with only 11 forwards and five defensemen for much of the game.

“We missed Foegele with his speed,” Knoblauch said, “the amount of penalties took away the flow of the game a little bit, but I think we weren’t as efficient breaking the puck out as we were in the first game.”

Edmonton’s other star, 2020 league MVP Draisaitl, still has no points in the series and hasn’t been much of a factor.

“I certainly have a lot more to give,” Draisaitl said. “Not my best tonight. Obviously I’m owning that. We’ll regroup and make sure I’ll be better in Game 3.”

Despite no goals from the Oilers powerful duo so far in the series, Knoblauch indicated he was happy with the play of his stars.

“Yeah we’d like some more goals, but I think our top guys have been pretty good,” he said.

The experience of the Panthers, who were in the final just a year ago, has clearly frustrated the Oilers, and Florida has found a way to limit them at what they do best – Edmonton came into the series with the best power play in the postseason at 37.3%, but is now 0 for 7.

“We have to work our way out of it,” McDavid said, “it always starts with work with our group. They’re a unique penalty kill, just like they’re a unique team. They’re aggressive, we have to have guys ready for the puck, we have to have guys making good plays. We have to string good plays together and we haven’t been able to do that.”

Edmonton, down 0-2 for the first time in the postseason, now has to accomplish a feat that few teams have ever done in Stanley Cup Final history. Only five teams in 54 tries have lost the first two games of the final and come back to win.

AP sports writer Alanis Thames contributed to this story.

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