The Oilers Are Astonishing

The first seven minutes of Game 6 were notable to me because, finally, both teams in the Stanley Cup Final appeared to be on even psychological footing. Florida was humbled by back-to-back losses after a steamroller start, but they knew they needed just one more good performance to seal their title. Edmonton had found a more sustainable fuel beyond the mad desperation of a 3-0 and then 3-1 deficit, and balancing out their ongoing series disadvantage was a deafening home arena that could almost convince you the stakes were winner-take-all. This confrontation was no longer cat-and-mouse but simply two great teams, anxious to avoid mistakes but salivating over what could lie on the other side of 60 minutes.

And then Edmonton broke the game open with a gorgeous, gorgeous goal that started a party they hope will last all the way through a cross-continental flight and one more win on Monday. They’ve been a vicious counterattacking team as they’ve reversed their fortunes in this Final, and another turnover created space for Leon Draisaitl to pilot a 3-on-2. Warren Foegele fell down as he collided with Aaron Ekblad, but he got back up again, raced to the net, and finished Leon’s pass to beat Sergei Bobrovsky for the 1-0 lead.

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Friday was an absolutely glorious night to be an Oilers fan. As Edmonton orchestrated an eventual 5-1 win, their live audience created probably the most emotional atmosphere for a non-clincher that I’ve ever witnessed. With Oiler joy came absolute misery for the Panthers, whose fearsome aura of undisputed superiority has diffused into wispy, irrelevant memory in the span of just a week. Nothing went right for them in Game 6. After regrouping from a first period in which they produced a season-low two shots on goal, they immediately surrendered a 2-on-1 haymaker from Adam Henrique on yet another quick change of possession. When Aleksander Barkov responded instantly with a goal from a dirty spot, his triumph was negated by a barely perceptible offside decision upon review. To send the Oilers into the second intermission with more momentum after a pretty conservative stretch, Zach Hyman jumped on a loose puck after a blocked shot and rocketed toward Bobrovsky for a breakaway success—no McDavid necessary.

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Multiple times this year I’ve heard the Panthers’ enthusiastically pulverizing style compared to a football team with a juggernaut offensive line, which may not run up flashy scores in the first quarter but exhausts the defense into submission for the drives that matter most. Again, like in Game 5, Florida improved on a poor start, and at the onset of the third a Barkov goal that actually counted gave Alberta a dark cloud to look up and worry about. But that wear-em-down ethos doesn’t function the same when the opening stretch is such a mismatch. This team can squeeze the life out of their opponents in a tight contest, but as the Oilers stayed impervious on the penalty kill and Stuart Skinner kept cool even when the Cats turned up the heat, there was just no way for the Panthers to redeem themselves from a 3-0 score. Even the potential for a strong finish going into Game 7 was erased by the ecstasy of Ryan McLeod’s empty netter, and then, 12 seconds later, Darnell Nurse’s empty-netter off a Skinner save. This is the hockey equivalent of sticking your own bully’s head in the toilet.

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If a series can change its character this unexpectedly, there’s nothing that says Florida can’t take the ice Monday and recreate the Oilers’ 8-1 bruising in that Game 4 win. But the version of the team that skated on Friday is not going to be the one to do it. The whole point of last year’s shortfall in the Final, as it pertains to this run, was that it should have given the Panthers the mental toughness necessary to close with authority. Edmonton has no such experience in these kinds of games, and yet they’re the ones teaching Florida a lesson about preparedness and stability. Only a fool would publicly lock in a prediction for the Oilers’ fate in Game 7. But everyone who watched Game 6 should be thinking the same thing: Wow.

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