Panthers take Stanley Cup Final lead over Oilers, but what’s next is ‘going to be a grind’



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SUNRISE, Fla. — Ten hours after a Game 5 victory over the New York Rangers, the elevator door on the 25th floor of the Florida Panthers’ Manhattan hotel opened 30 minutes before the Panthers’ team bus was scheduled to leave for the airport.

Out came Sergei Bobrovsky wearing just a bathrobe.

Sweat dripping off his face, his hair and body soaking wet, he left a pool of water on the elevator’s marble floor.

“Excuse me,” the soft-spoken goalie said. “Don’t slip. Had to get in a sauna.”

Fast forward nine days, Bobrovsky was wearing a sweaty T-shirt inside the Panthers’ locker room and completely unfazed by the fact that he had just stolen Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final from the Edmonton Oilers by a 3-0 score.

Every Panthers player had seven days off between dispatching the Rangers and the seemingly endless buildup to Saturday night’s opener against the underdog Oilers. But if there was any concern Bobrovsky would lack sharpness against Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl & Co. on this big stage, the 35-year-old quickly alleviated that with a 13-save first period, 26 saves through 40, and an eventual 32-save shutout in a game the Oilers certainly deserved better.

“Definitely, every win’s a big win,” Bobrovsky said. “It’s a long series, so we’re going to reset, refocus and get ready for the next fight.”

The Panthers spent the week telling everybody to stop worrying about “Bob.”

To a man, player after player said he’s the hardest-working goalie they’ve ever played with. His preparation is second to few, and he has routines that are must-see.

“I don’t even know what he’s doing half the time, but it works,” Carter Verhaeghe said.

“I don’t ask,” added Brandon Montour.

Whether it’s saunas or eye-stretching exercises or going on the ice early and doing a routine where he slowly glides around like a synchronized swimmer, Bobrovsky, the Panthers always know, will be prepared.

“His work ethic, his character, he’s everything you want in a teammate, especially a goalie,” Matthew Tkachuk said. “He is everything. Very impressed with the way he played tonight, especially early. But honestly, throughout the whole night, he was really good and he was there for us.”

The Panthers know they can play better, and Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch certainly expects that to happen. For anybody who has watched the Panthers this postseason, it was shocking how much Edmonton tilted the ice in the first two periods. It’s rare to see such a shot volume differential for the Panthers.

They’re usually the ones outshooting and out chancing their opponents, causing teams like the Bruins and Rangers this postseason to go 12, 13 and 14 minutes during several stretches without shots.

Yet it was the Oilers piling up the shots and possession time only to frustratingly find themselves in a 2-0 hole due to Verhaeghe’s first-period goal and Evan Rodrigues’ second-period goal. Point-blank chances, breakaways, rush chances, three power plays. The Oilers couldn’t break the seal.

“Maybe it was the hockey gods getting us back for that Game 6 (versus Dallas) where we probably didn’t deserve to win,” McDavid said, regarding Edmonton eliminating the Stars with only 10 shots on goal. “Tonight maybe we deserved at least one goal, maybe two, and we don’t find a way to get them.

“I know this group will stick with it — bounce back. That’s what we take a lot of pride in doing. We’ll gear up for a big one on Monday.”

What has to be concerning for the Oilers is they know the Panthers will only get better after Saturday’s thievery delivered the franchise its first-ever Stanley Cup Final lead.

This was not them, especially in the first period when the Panthers looked to be having trouble adjusting to Edmonton’s speed and skill, especially against the top two lines.

“After a week off, we’ll take a win any way we can get it,” Verhaeghe said. “But they outshot us, they had a lot more chances than us. We shut it down, played good defensively (in the third period). But there’s lots of things we can improve on. We’re getting to know our opponent after the first game, feeling them out.”

Verhaeghe, the Panthers’ all-time leading goal scorer with 25, scored on Florida’s first shot of the game when Aleksander Barkov served him up with a perfect pass as they drove the net. That goal would end up being his 18th career game-winning goal.

But after the Oilers couldn’t beat Bobrovsky on an early second-period power play, Sam Bennett chipped a puck in with the belief he would likely be able to chase the dump-in down first. He did and Rodrigues, lost by a fast-asleep Darnell Nurse and Evander Kane, buried it from the slot in his Stanley Cup Final debut.

This after Rodrigues said hours earlier that he was so excited, “You almost wish it was a 1 o’clock game so you can just wake up and start getting after it.”

Then, in the third period, the Panthers locked it down in vintage style.

“We’re going to find out how much better we can get,” coach Paul Maurice said. “They played a very strong game. I thought they moved well, I thought their transition game was really quick and we would’ve expected that, so there’s areas in that that I think we can improve. And then it’s going to be a grind.”

For the Oilers to turn this season around, they’re going to have to be a lot sharper at the net.

McDavid was stopped six times, Draisaitl four, and he could never get that one-timer off from the right circle on the power play. Adam Henrique and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were robbed on breakaways.

Knoblauch said every goalie has deficiencies and it’ll be up to the Oilers to find Bobrovsky’s. But on this night, the hard-working, soft-spoken goalie was sharp as can be for his 11th start in his past 12 where has allowed two goals or fewer.

This may not have been his greatest performance in a Panthers’ sweater, but given the circumstance, the context, and who he was going up against, it was as big a win as Bobrovsky’s ever had, considering he didn’t even start last year’s playoffs as Florida’s No. 1.

Now he’s the oldest goalie in history to open a Stanley Cup Final with a shutout.

“He’s amazing down low, he’s also amazing up high,” said his Oilers counterpart Stuart Skinner. “It’s hard to beat him. He’s an incredible goalie. He does a great job sealing the ice. You’ve just got to somehow find a way to score a goal on him.”

The Oilers are a bit perturbed with how many inside and outside the game aren’t giving them a chance in this series. Knoblauch sarcastically pointed out after the loss that the Panthers were “probably caught off guard because you guys are talking about how good they were and we didn’t have a chance in this series.”

To outplay the Panthers in Game 1 and not get the victory had to be upsetting. But they believe if they keep finding ways to net and peppering Bobrovsky with rubber, the dam will eventually break.

“I know how many people gave us a chance in this series, and I think we showed tonight that we can play with them,” McDavid said. “That’s a confidence booster for this group — but we know that our best can play with anybody. Disappointing.”

(Photo of Connor McDavid being chased by Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov in Game 1: Dave Sandford / NHLI via Getty Images)





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