Sunday July 14th, 2024 9:40PM

For the Panthers, Game 7 of Stanley Cup Final will bring either immortality or ignominy

By The Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — It's very simple for the Florida Panthers now: Win on Monday, and you're Stanley Cup champions. Lose on Monday, and you're the first team since World War II that blew a 3-0 lead in hockey's title series.

Either way, the outcome will last forever.

“It’s probably the biggest NHL game in however many years,” Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk said.

He's not wrong, and for the Panthers, the 2,464th game in franchise history is unquestionably the biggest one ever. It's for all the marbles, immortality awaiting with a win, ignominy awaiting with a loss. The fourth and final chance the Panthers will get this season to win the Stanley Cup has arrived, with Florida playing host to the Edmonton Oilers in the final game of this season on Monday night.

Florida won the first three games. Edmonton won the next three. Not since 1945 has a Stanley Cup Final followed such a trajectory, and not since 1942 has a team trailed 3-0 in the title series and wound up winning — the fate that Florida is trying to avoid.

“Doesn’t matter how it’s gone, doesn't matter how you draw it up,” Tkachuk said. “They lost the first three games. We lost the next three. It's even right now. It doesn’t matter what has happened to get to this point. ... This whole season comes down to one game. At home. How could you not be so jacked up for this? This is absolutely incredible, an incredible opportunity.”

The first three games, all Florida. The Panthers outscored the Oilers 11-4, had more hits and more blocked shots and looked completely on their way.

The last three games, all Edmonton. The Oilers outscored the Panthers 18-5, are scoring on 22.5% of their shots on goal — a video-game rate — and have nearly twice as many blocked shots in that span as Florida does.

Add it all up, it's 3-3. Game 7 is here.

“You can look at every storyline, you can analyze everything, you can say how we match up, they got the momentum, we’re on our heels. It doesn’t matter," Panthers forward Kyle Okposo said. "It’s your next game. You're only as good as your next game.”

Never mind the roller-coaster ride the teams took to get here. It's only the 18th Game 7 in Stanley Cup Final history. Home teams have won 12 of the previous 17 (a good sign for the Panthers), but road teams have won each of the last three (a good sign for the Oilers).

Panthers coach Paul Maurice was asked if Game 7 will define legacies, including his own, given the historical significance of potentially wasting a 3-0 series lead.

“I will let you know at the end of it,” Maurice said.

Maurice has spent this series hearing questions about winning the Cup (something people try not to talk about until they've actually won the thing), 3-0 leads, the pressure that comes when clinching opportunities were wasted as they were in Game 4, Game 5 and Game 6, and plenty more along those lines. He's a smart guy. He gets why those questions are coming.

But when he was sidling over to players for quick chats during practice on Sunday, it wasn't about big-picture ramifications. It was taking the temperature of a team that he still fully believes in, especially going into Game 7.

“There's a far bigger contextual story that means nothing to me now, but it means everything to you,” Maurice said. “That’s the stories you have to write. That’s actually what makes this whole thing awesome is the context of it. Nobody ever, ever, has played on a backdoor rink in Canada and scored the Game 3 overtime winner in the qualifying round. It's one game, always, that excites you. And that is the context of this game and we will live in that context.”

Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov — it'll either be him or Oilers captain Connor McDavid accepting the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday night — concurs.

Indeed, this is it. Championship or collapse. By Monday night, the Panthers' story will be written.

“I was one of those kids for sure that played by himself whenever I was outdoors or at home ... thinking, ‘This is Game 7 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, maybe even overtime,’" Barkov said. "You think about those moments. I’ve had many of those memories, but now it’s becoming a truth tomorrow for sure. Exciting. The most exciting time to be a hockey player.”

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL

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