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Locking down games and dominating late has become a hallmark for the Florida Panthers

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Sometimes it is not easy for the Florida Panthers to score goals, in large part because their brand of hockey is so predicated on keeping their opponent from doing so.

When they do put the puck in the net to take a lead, they are the best in the NHL at keeping it.

Forget the Comeback Cats. The Lockdown Cats have taken over the Stanley Cup Final, suffocating the Edmonton Oilers to run down the clock in Games 1 and 2 to move two victories away from the first championship in franchise history.

Coach Paul Maurice, who took over the team two years ago coming off a great regular season and aimed to turn it into a playoff machine, believes it is a product of experience.

“We’ve got two years of doing it,” Maurice said after a 4-1 victory Monday night gave his team a 2-0 series lead. “We play tight games. We’ve always played tight, hard games.”

Despite the final score, this was one tight, too. The score was tied at 1 at the second intermission, Evan Rodrigues scored three minutes into the third period and then again on a power play, with an empty-netter finishing things off.

The Panthers have led the final for a total of nearly 73 minutes and continue to do everything right in that situation to stifle talented Oilers players from Connor McDavid to Leon Draisaitl and beyond.

“We just try to play the same game," forward Matthew Tkachuk said. “It’s not like we’re trying to play a different game or try to shut it down or whatever — just play really hard, play in your face, keep the gaps good, play simple, move your feet, get some hits.”

And some goals. The Panthers now have a 28-11 advantage in the third period over the course of the playoffs, something Tkachuk chalks up to the hard work he and his teammates have put in since the start of training camp.

“It might just pay off in the third,” Tkachuk said. “Everybody’s in great shape and great competitors. As games go on, we like to think we get a little bit better.”

There's little doubt about that thus far in the final, with Florida's defense-first approach taking its toll on Edmonton's top players. As McDavid said after Game 1, the Panthers are “as advertised.”

“They just check, they mark their man and play the body,” Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch said. “They’re a tenacious group and they make it tough to get any space out there.”

That praise lines up exactly with what Maurice and his staff and have tried to establish as their team's identity. Locking down games does not mean going into a shell and holding on with the help of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

Instead, the Panthers defend by attacking and keeping it up as long as possible.

“We don’t sit back and not get pressure,” said forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who is looking for his second title after winning in 2019 with St. Louis. “We keep pressuring, keep playing our game.”

Tarasenko and veteran fourth-liner Kyle Okposo joined before the trade deadline and quickly understood the assignment. Okposo, who at 36 is nearing the end of a very respectable career but one that has not included hoisting the Cup, sees this style as a winning recipe the Panthers hope to keep cooking up as the final shifts to Edmonton for Game 3 on Thursday.

“We like to wear teams now,” Okposo said. “We like to grind it out and try to impose our will on the opposition, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that throughout the playoffs. We like to like to get it in and bang and grind it out and keep a tight gap and not let the other team breathe. It seems to be working well for us, and we’re just going to continue that.”

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