Stanley Cup Final: Goalie’s memorable performance helps Panthers take Game 1

SUNRISE, Fla. — Sergei Bobrovsky turned the puck over on the first shift and recovered. He lost his stick for 30 seconds at one point and still made saves. Connor McDavid put six shots on net, and none went in.

Bobrovsky put on a masterclass against McDavid, and every other player who dared test him and his teammates pounced when given the chance. As a result, the Florida Panthers are off and rolling in the Stanley Cup Final.

The goalie everyone calls “Bob” was unbeatable in stopping all 32 shots he faced from every angle and in every situation in one of the most memorable playoff goaltending performances in recent history. Thanks to goals from Carter Verhaeghe and Evan Rodrigues, the Panthers beat the Edmonton Oilers 3-0 on Saturday night in Game 1 of the NHL’s best-of-seven championship series.

“It’s fun to play those guys, those elite guys, and it’s a fun atmosphere,” Bobrovsky said. “I am just alive for the opportunity, and I enjoy every second of it.”

Chants of “Bobby! Bobby!” repeated themselves over and over as Bobrovsky turned aside multiple breakaways, stopped McDavid when the reigning and three-time MVP went into turbo mode and flew all around and outside the crease to make Florida’s net an impenetrable fortress.

“Everything you want in a teammate,” Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk said of Bobrovsky, “especially a goalie.”

Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner for his stellar regular-season play, registered his second shutout of this run and third in the playoffs over his 14-year career. Thanks to him, the Panthers have a lead in the Cup final for the first time in franchise history and are now three wins away from hoisting hockey’s hallowed trophy for the first time.

It didn’t even matter that they were outshot 32-18. Back in the final for a second consecutive season and healthier and more prepared for the moment than in the five-game loss to Vegas a year ago, Florida showed experience on this stage does matter, handling pressure and tense moments throughout like most of its players have been here before.

“We kind of know what it takes this year,” Verhaeghe said. “We know how challenging it is, the ups and downs of playoffs and the grind of it. I think that makes us more equipped this year.”

The goals by Verhaeghe and Rodrigues came on the first five shots on net against Edmonton’s Stuart Skinner, who was left out to dry by a slow backcheck and a lost race to the puck. Skinner, who has had his ups and downs this postseason and whose play looked like the biggest question in the series, was hardly to blame for either one.

“Lots to like,” McDavid said. “We didn’t give up too much, (but) what we did give up was dangerous.”

Edmonton controlled much of the game 5 on 5, extended its streak of penalties killed to 30, and its power play did just about everything right except score. Despite all that, the Oilers find themselves trailing in this core group led by McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s first appearance in the final.

“We know that we’re going to have to get even better,” coach Kris Knoblauch said. “There are things we’re going to have to look at and try to increase those chances.”

There is one former San Jose Sharks player on each team.

Forward Evander Kane spent nearly four years in the Sharks organization before the team terminated his contract in January 2022 for violating coronavirus protocol while he was with San Jose’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Barracuda. Soon after his release, Kane signed with the Oilers.

Forward Steven Lorentz spent one season in San Jose after he was acquired from the Carolina Panthers in July 2022. He was traded a year later to the Panthers.

It’s also a series featuring the furthest distance between teams meeting for the Cup, eclipsing Boston and Vancouver’s previous record set in 2011. The trophy was brought out onto the ice before puck drop, similar to what the league did by shining a spotlight on it in the empty stands in Edmonton four years ago when the playoffs went on in pandemic bubbles.

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“Wasn’t really expecting that,” Rodrigues said of an NHL first of the Cup at ice level before the final for the first time since the 1960s. “That was a little bit of chills and a pretty cool moment. It was a pretty nice touch. I’m not going to lie.”

This was the polar opposite of that more recent eerily quiet scene from 2020, with a sellout crowd of 19,543 screaming fans juiced up for a fifth consecutive final featuring a team from Florida. While 20 playoff games have been played in Canada over the past 20 seasons, this was the 22nd in the Sunshine State over that time.

Another is set for Tuesday when these teams return for Game 2.

“It’s a long series,” Bobrovsky said. “We’re going to reset, refocus and get ready for the next fight.”

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