Barkov, Bobrovsky and the Panthers beat the Oilers 4-3 to move within win of Stanley Cup title

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Following their leaders who got them this far in the playoffs and a winning recipe that has worked all season, the Florida Panthers are on the verge of lifting the Stanley Cup.

Captain Aleksander Barkov set up a goal and scored another, Sergei Bobrovsky made some of the biggest of his 32 saves to thwart a comeback bid and the Panthers held on to beat the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 in Game 3 of the Cup final Thursday night.

They can win the first title in franchise history as soon as Game 4 on Saturday night in Edmonton.

“We know it’s going to be the hardest game for sure,” Barkov said. “We don’t take anything for granted. Every single day is one day at a time. Whether it’s one period, one shift, we take it one at a time. That’s how we’ve been all year.”

Florida took another step toward hockey’s mountaintop by pouncing on a handful of Edmonton turnovers and keeping Connor McDavid from scoring a goal. A late rally got the Oilers within one but fell short, as the Panthers leaned on Bobrovsky, who made a highlight-reel stop on Ryan McLeod in the final minutes to preserve the victory.

“They are a very skillful offensive team," Bobrovsky said. “They’re going to make plays. You just focus on each and every one and it’s a fun challenge. It’s a fun challenge to play against them because they bring the best.”

Long before that, Barkov forced one of the giveaways by Evan Bouchard seconds before Sam Reinhart’s goal, netminder Stuart Skinner coughed up the puck on Vladimir Tarasenko’s, and Darnell Nurse gave it away on Sam Bennett’s.

“We let them take that momentum and stride with it,” Skinner said. "Just kind of silly mistakes. That doesn't need to happen.”

Barkov had one of the signature moments by getting past the defense and beating Skinner on a breakaway, quieting for some time the crowd fired up for the first Stanley Cup Final game with fans in Edmonton since 2006. That trip also ended in defeat.

To avoid that fate, the Oilers will need to complete a 3-0 comeback done just four times in NHL playoff history — and once in the final all the way back in 1942 — to end Canada’s Cup drought.

The last year a team based in Canada won it was Montreal in 1993, months before the Panthers’ inaugural season. Until this series, they had gone 1-8 in the final.

Behind Barkov and Bobrovsky, Florida has totally flipped that script. The two leading candidates for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP were arguably the two best players on the ice in Game 3, including Barkov bouncing back from a high hit from Leon Draisaitl that knocked him out of Game 2 on Monday night.

“Just from the start, our compete and our will and the want to win this one was huge,” Bennett said. “Everyone down to our goalie were battling their butts off. It was nice to see the effort. You either have it, or you don’t. We have 23 dogs on our team that have that will. You either have it, or you don’t.”

Another big reason the Panthers got here, winger Matthew Tkachuk, also had a big assist and was responsible for turning up the pressure on Edmonton.

The Oilers wilted under it, losing a game in which they largely the better team but could not overcome ill-timed miscues. Skinner allowed four goals on 23 shots and Warren Foegele, Philip Broberg and McLeod scored, while McDavid for the first time all playoffs looked frustrated and out of sorts.

“We’re trying to figure them out," said McDavid, who put five shots on net. “We haven’t beat them in three games. We’ve had stretches that are good, stretches that are bad.”

Bogging down elite opponents, defending them to the point of second-guessing their ability to score, is a huge part of the Panthers’ style and a big reason they are on the league’s biggest stage and putting the cold ones on ice for a potential championship celebration 2,500 miles from home.

By holding on to beat Edmonton on Thursday night, they also showed no ill effects from waiting to fly from South Florida to Alberta, a decision that was questioned when their plane was delayed by storms and got in a few hours late Wednesday — less than 24 hours before puck drop. Instead of looking jet-lagged, the Panthers were primed to pounce on opportunities to score and delivered when it mattered most.

“We keep staying with the moment,” Bobrovsky said. “We don’t think too much ahead of ourselves. We’re just staying with the moment and enjoy the moment.”


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Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press