Cote: Champions! Epic rise as Florida Panthers win 1st Stanley Cup, deny McDavid coronation | Opinion

No home game in South Florida sports history has weighed more. Felt heavier.

And all of that weight lifted off the Florida Panthers late Monday night in a Sunrise home arena filled with the sounds of rapture, and relief. The weight lifted because so did the NHL’s Stanley Cup championship trophy for the first time in the club’s 30-season history.

“It’s not what I thought it would be,” coach Paul Maurice said in the midst of the on-ice celebration. “It’s so much better. I’ve been chasing that for a long time.”

He pinched his eyes shut tight, as if to keep the emotion from spilling onto the ice.

With a 2-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers and superstar Connor McDavid in the winner-take-all Game 7 of the Final, a franchise officially announced itself as a force in hockey. The team from the tropics, from the suburb once best known for a shopping mall, had arrived.

Several Panthers and family members partied Tuesday at the storied Elbo Room bar on Fort Lauderdale beach as fans gathered outside. At one point Matthew Tkachuk carried the puck across the street to the shore of the Atlantic Ocean as fans followed in a pilgrimage. Water freezes where most hockey is played. Not here.

McDavid was given the Conn Smythe trophy as MVP of the entire postseason, announced to vigorous booing. ‘McJesus’ did not return to the ice to take it. Panthers fans chanted “Bob-by!” for the candidacy of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, but no one Panther stood out above the rest to challenge McDavid’s postseason-long grip.

McDavid may have deserved it, although a player from a losing team winning MVP still renders it a bit of a “Con” Smythe trophy. Notably, “The Chosen One” was off the scoresheet the last two games of the Final including Monday’s that mattered most.

In any case McDavid didn’t get the one trophy he most wanted.

The Panthers took that one, took it from him, with captain and career-long Cat Aleksander Barkov given the honor of lifting it first. His teammates then took turns, most holding it aloft and smooching it as they skated to raucous ovations.

“It’s been a long ride,” Barkov said on the ice, awash in the continuing din of celebrating fans. “We deserve it. I just can’t believe we did it.”

After his first victory lap with the Cup, “It’s heavy!” noted Barkov of the 42-pound prize.

Before the on-ice ceremony the Panthers celebrated behind their goal in a buoyant group hug after time had expired. Joyous fans celebrated with them, separated only by the clear wall of thin Plexiglas.

Many Oilers players were half a rink away, on one knee, solemnly watching.

Across the decades and leagues in Greater Miami’s sports history, no game played in our own backyard, ever, had presented such a stark, all-or-nothing extreme of unprecedented momentous joy or epic humiliation and infamy — no in-between.

That sounds like hyperbole. It might be understatement.

The Panthers on Monday night would raise the Cup as first-time NHL champions ... or fail and be sports’ new face of choking, of blowing it, of having everything in front of you including your home fans and letting everybody down.

Nobody said life was fair... sports included.

“That’s what makes this whole thing awesome,” Maurice had said.

Awesome if you win, awful if you don’t, and either reality on you for eternity. Defining you. Lifting you up forever, or branding you with permanent regret.

The Panthers beat more than Edmonton on this night.

They denied all of Canada, the hockey-inventing country that has not seen one of its teams raise the Cup since 1993.

They denied McDavid, currently the consensus greatest player in the sport, his first Stanley Cup in a nine-year career, instead only magnifying the one giant hole on his resume’.

And they surely denied the TV networks and most hockey fans who anticipated and desired the ceremonial coronation of McDavid but instead watched the nontraditional interloper-franchise lift the Cup.

With all that context in mind, “You could argue this was the biggest game in NHL history,” ESPN’s veteran hockey broadcaster Steve Levy said Tuesday.

Most all of the pressure, that weight, was on the Panthers.

The Cats had led this best-of-7 Final by 3-0, seemingly on cruise control, then three straight Edmonton Oilers wins left Florida careening into a home Game 7 -—and their fans equal parts hopeful and terrified.

It felt like Florida was trailing 3-3 entering the final Final game. The last three losses by a combined 18-5 marked the most lopsided three straight games in Final history.

In hockey history teams with a 3-0 lead had won the series on 206 of 210 occurrences, or 98 percent. Teams with that lead in a Final were 27-1, the lone exception in 1942.

The Cats on Monday faced what would have been an epic, unforgiving collapse. National shame.

Instead they won only the eighth major professional championship in 157 combined seasons for the Heat (three), Dolphins (two), Marlins (two) and Panthers (first).

In doing so they won for Maurice his first NHL championship in three decades as a coach, on his third Final try including last year’s with Florida.

“I need one,” he had said of what a Cup would mean to him.

His Panthers rose up when they had no other choice but the shamed alternative.

Florida parlayed a strong second period into a 2-1 lead.

A hard-earned penalty kill included a couple of key saves by Bobrovsky.

Then Sam Reinhart scored on a wrist shot off assists by Carter Verhaeghe and Dmitry Kulikov. It was only Reinhart’s second goal of the Final after a team-leading 57 in the regular season.

Florida first lit the lamp and an already-lit home crowd 4:37 into the game on a Verhaeghe tip-in goal off assists by Evan Rodrigues and Tkachuk. Verhaeghe hadn’t scored since Game 1 of the Final, so the horn sounding for his shot was welcome as well.

The crowd, begging for an early lead, was euphoric. It wouldn’t last.. Well, it did for about two minutes.

Edmonton tied it 1-1 at 6:44 on a Mattias Janmark wrist-shot goal. The reaction was a bit jarring. Save for no horn, Oilers fans made big noise. Obviously, many, many Panthers fans opted for a profit on the ticket after-market over supporting their team in a Game 7. (Y’all know who you are. And sad of you.)

The third period was a matter of hanging on. The tension in the building was nerve-wracking. There should have been a cardiologist on-call in every section.

This was the 18th Game 7 all-time in local sports and the 12th at home — but only the third ultimate Game 7 (all at home) with championship-or-bust stakes. It follows the Marlins’ 1997 World Series win and the Heat’s 2013 NBA Finals clincher.

This one is bigger than those other two. The Marlins were in only their fifth season, their fans hardly long suffering. The Heat had won two previous NBA titles.

This also was the NHL’s 18th all-time Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final. The home team was 12-2 before losing three in a row, most recently in 2019.

The Panthers were the betting favorite to continue that streak — the slight betting underdog Monday to the mighty McDavid despite being at home.

But it was the Florida Panthers who raised the only trophy that mattered.

“It’s not a dream anymore, it’s reality,” said Tkachuk, grinning. “But I still can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.”

One day later he was wading into the Atlantic Ocean carrying the Stanley Cup.

Believe it.