Panthers take Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final as Sergei Bobrovsky shuts out Oilers

SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers offered plenty of reason to believe this year’s Stanley Cup Final won’t go like last.

With goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky stopping everything that came his way and behind goals from Carter Verhaeghe and Evan Rodrigues — plus a late empty-netter — the Panthers won Game 1 over the Edmonton Oilers, 3-0, Saturday night at Amerant Bank Arena.

In their return to the Stanley Cup Final, it’s a sharp contrast from the 5-2 loss suffered in Las Vegas to start the 2023 installment, leading the Panthers’ to their ultimate demise in five games.

Instead, it was a celebratory atmosphere from the moment Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel banged the drum pregame to hype up the sell-out crowd of 19,543. Florida is leading a Stanley Cup Final series for the first time in the franchise’s third appearance playing for the NHL’s top prize.

“It’s just one,” said forward Matthew Tkachuk. “But we really wanted to take care of the first one, especially on home ice. Now, just looking forward to Game 2. It always feels good to win, but we got a lot of things to clean up.”

Said fellow forward Verhaeghe: “We kind of ran out of gas last year. It was our first time going that far, and we kind of slowed down. Last year, we did a lot of learning, and this year, too. And we kind of know what it takes this year.”

The Panthers presented the high-powered offensive attack of the Oilers with greater physicality than they saw in the Western Conference Final against the Dallas Stars. Florida constantly knew where star Edmonton center Connor McDavid was, making sure he couldn’t skate too freely, although the speedster still led his team with six shots on goal.

Nonetheless, Edmonton nearly doubled the Panthers in shots on goal, 32-18. Bobrovsky saved every last one of them, hearing chants of “Bob-by” raining down to the ice throughout the night.

“They got lots of speed, lots of skill,” Bobrovsky said. “It’s a fun challenge.”

Outshot and with the Oilers earning an advantage in time in the offensive zone, the three-goal win still left Florida feeling it can put together a much stronger performance in Game 2.

“We’ve got lots of room to improve, which is the positive for us,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “We’re going to find out how much better we can get, if we can play our game.”

It was evident very early Saturday this series was getting off on the right foot when Verhaeghe pushed Florida’s first goal into the net four minutes into Game 1’s action, taking a pass on a 2-on-1 from Aleksander Barkov.

The Oilers had their opportunities at a quick response, but Bobrovsky stopped close shots from McDavid and breakaway chances by Adam Henrique and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins among his 13 first-period saves to maintain the Panthers’ 1-0 lead through one.

The Panthers struck again early in the second period, shortly after killing off a penalty from the end of the first. Rodrigues slapped the puck over the left shoulder of Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner and into the net from the slot off a smooth backhand centering pass from Sam Bennett.

Off a Bennett penalty later in the period, Bobrovsky stopped one dangerous shot on goal from Leon Draisaitl, and with Nugent-Hopkins prepared to blast the rebound past him, he swiftly slid right to keep the goal covered as the shot went high and wide.

The Panthers held strong on the penalty kill, expanding on their momentum there from the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers, stopping all three Edmonton power plays.

“I saw a lot of commitment blocking shots, strong on clears, getting in lanes,” Tkachuk said. “They had some great looks. Bob made some great saves. They had some good power plays, and we had some great penalty kills.”

Holding the Oilers down again in the final period, Eetu Luostarinen added an empty-net goal with 4.4 seconds remaining to tack onto the final score.

“Missed some chances to score goals. Florida, probably that wasn’t their best game,” Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch said. “There’s a lot of things I liked about our game, but we know that we’re going to have to get even better.”

Aside from losing Game 1 in Las Vegas last June, the Panthers were swept in their 1996 Cup Final by the Colorado Avalanche, so Saturday’s victory was their first in the opener of a final series.

Game 2 is back at Amerant Bank Arena at 8 p.m. Monday night.