Cote: For Florida Panthers now it’s Stanley Cup or historic defeat in a Game 7 for the ages | Opinion

The most exciting and most dreadful two words in all of sports are headed to South Florida on Monday night, and those two words will offer one team unparalleled joy and the other deepest agony – both extremes bone-deep and eternal.

Game 7.

It’s a wonderful thing for fans. Unless your team is in it.

Then it’s a test of faith and belief and luck, enough to make an agnostic pray.

Florida Panthers fans will fill the Sunrise arena hoping for euphoria never before experienced, but aware they might head home dejected like never before, maybe in tears. And maybe embarrassed?

Because their hockey team will either lift the NHL’s Stanley Cup championship trophy for the first time in 30 franchise seasons … or suffer a loss of epic, historic magnitude – what by one measure would be the sport’s worst defeat in more than 80 years.

Florida led this best-of-7 series with Edmonton by 3-0, once. In Panthers fans’ group chats there was speculation when and where the championship parade might be held.

Then the Oilers won three in a row, capped by Friday night’s 5-1 Game 6 win in Edmonton.

Now the narrative has all the pressure on the Panthers even though they are home for Game 7, and the series trend makes that understandable. The Cats by Saturday had dropped from a very slight betting favorite to dead-even.

Anger was evident in the Cats’ postgame dressing room, a few pieces of equipment seen thrown.

“They came out hungrier than us,” said Carter Verhaeghe of Friday’s effort, a fairly damning statement. “They took it to us.”

Said captain Aleksander Barkov: “We know we need to get better. We need to make the bad moments better.”

The Panthers had chartered a jet to fly about 150 family members of players and club personnel to the potential Cup-clinching Game 4 in Edmonton last week. The Cats lost 8-1. Friday night there was no such team charter offered to Game 6.

The superstitious switch-up did not work.

Warren Foegele’s goal 7:27 into the game on a pass from Leon Draisaitl beat Sergei Bobrovsky into the upper corner of the net. The metrics say Bob stops everything at ice-level but is susceptible when the shots are higher, and Foegele went textbook.

Adam Henrique did the same, top-shelf left, to make it 2-0, just 46 seconds into the second period.

Ten seconds after that Barkov banked a rebound to make it 2-1 ... apparently. Edmonton challenged there was an offside penalty, and won. Replays suggested Sam Reinhart was approximately one millimeter over the line on a play you’d think too close and debatable to negate a goal.

Florida coach Paul Maurice certainly thought so.

He was demonstratively irate behind the bench, a degree in lip-reading not required to to see him clearly screaming, “No [bleep]ing way!”

Afterward:”You’re looking for a jump point. Would have been a real spark for sure.”

The Oilers made it 3-0 on Zach Hyman’s low shot to Bobrovsky’s right just 1:39 before the end of the second period, a demoralizer, and the fourth straight game this series the Cats goaltender has given up three-plus goals for a team built on defense-first.

Then Barkov scored a goal not even the referees could deny to make it 3-1 1:28 into the third period on an assist from Verhaehge.

But that was it ... except for a pair of Edmonton empty-net goals with around three minutes left..

And now the Panthers are in jeopardy of being the first team since 1942 to lead a Stanley Cup Final 3-0 and not raise the Cup. That would see the Cats labeled as the new face of what it means to choke. (Sports fans and social media are not renowned for sympathy and kindness, as you may have heard.)

Teams with a 3-0 lead are 206-4 all-time in the postseason and 27-1 in the Final dating to that lone exception in ‘42.

There is no in-between for what Monday night will bring, the weight of it.

And the stakes are as great for the team from the province of Alberta in western Canada.

The Oilers have been champions before, but not since 1990. They are playing for all of Canada, which invented this sport but has not won the Cup since 1993. And they have the widely regarded best player in hockey in Connor McDavid, who for all the hype and the nicknames (McJesus, The Chosen One, the Next Gretzky) has yet to lead his team to the coveted crown.

This will mark the 18th Game 7 in South Florida’s sports history played by the Miami Heat, Marlins or Panthers, and the 12th played at home. But this will be only the third Game 7 (all at home) with championship-or-bust stakes:

October 26, 1997 – The then-Florida Marlins defeat the Cleveland Indians, 3-2 in 11 innings at what then was Pro Player Stadium, for the club’s first of two World Series trophies.

June 20, 2013 – The Miami Heat defeat the San Antonio Spurs, 95-88, at the then-AmericanAirlines Arena, for the most recent of the club’s three NBA Finals trophies.

Now, June 24, 2024 – The Panthers host Edmonton in Game 7. Winner takes all. Loser takes a lifetime of regret.

Can the Cat keep South Florida’s all-or-nothing Game 7 record perfect?

The Panthers have skated through what might be the most daunting gauntlet in NHL postseason history to get this far: Through the rival and recent double-champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, the physically brutal Boston Bruins in the second, and a New York Rangers team that had the league’s best season record in the Eastern Conference finals.

Now it’s “McJesus” himself, the hockey god, Edmonton’s McDavid. He didn’t even get on the scoresheet in this crucial Game 6. He had help. Plenty of it.

Now the Florida Panthers need that. Help.

“You feel it. It hurts. You lick your wounds,” said Maurice. “But who we are tonight means nothing to who we’re gonna be two days from now.”

That’s optimism with the strong musk of desperation after three straight losses.

Edmonton has all of the momentum in this Final entering Game 7, and the sport’s best player, and the nation of Canada rooting for an end to its championship drought at long last. Oh, and an impenetrable penalty kill that has stopped -- this is insane -- 46 of their opponents’ last 47 power play chances.

Florida, battered, reeling and now doubted, has its arena, and its home fans ... and one last chance to avoid historic ignominy.

Monday night will be momentous, and exhilarating, and terrifying and -- for better or worse -- something you’ll not forget.

Game 7.