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'Nothing tops it': Cup win a long time coming for all-out Panthers

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With seven minutes left in the third period of Monday's epic Game 7, Evan Bouchard feathered a pass to the doorstep of the Florida Panthers' net.

The pass wasn't to just anyone. Somehow, someway, in a winner-takes-all game for the ages, the best hockey player of his generation found open ice in front of the crease: Connor McDavid was all alone with the Edmonton Oilers down 2-1.

No. 97 corralled the puck, made a quick move from backhand to forehand and tried to sneak it past a sprawling Sergei Bobrovsky. No dice. The puck popped out to Zach Hyman, who had his stick tied up by Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour at the perfect moment. Nope. A scramble ensued, Bobrovsky pounced on the puck, and that was it. Florida played lock-down defense until sticks, helmets, gloves, and plastic rats rained down.

Game over, historic collapse avoided, reputations salvaged and cemented: Florida, the NHL's southernmost team and a laughingstock for stretches of its 30-season existence, has captured its elusive first Stanley Cup. "There was no question we were going to win this one," Montour told Sportsnet moments after hoisting the Cup.

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Last June, the Panthers were walloped 9-3 in the fifth and final game of a lopsided Cup Final; the cumulative score was 26-12 in favor of the Vegas Golden Knights. This year, they jumped out to a 3-0 series lead, lost three straight close-out games, one of them by seven goals, one on home ice, before finally finishing the job in a season and final that felt never-ending.

Long doesn't mean boring. No, the hockey world might have just witnessed the most memorable final in NHL history - a deep team outdueled the Wayne Gretzky of its era, but only barely. It took seven thrilling games, and McDavid - who was otherworldly throughout the playoffs and especially in the Final, where he posted 11 of his 42 points - still earned the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Fittingly, Florida's most clutch player, Carter Verhaeghe, scored the opening goal Monday, and its top sniper, 57-goal scorer Sam Reinhart, nailed the winner. The Panthers won as a unit but ultimately needed their best to be the best.

"I've never hugged so many sweaty men in my life," Panthers head coach Paul Maurice told Sportsnet from ice level at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Florida.

"They always say you can't fucking get the words out, man," added blue-liner Aaron Ekblad, a 10-year Panther. "That's incredible. This is amazing. Sorry for swearing, but this is the best moment of my life so far. Nothing tops it."

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This Florida team should be remembered for its ability to limit offensive dynamos. Round 1's top priority was Nikita Kucherov, and the Tampa Bay superstar managed only three five-on-five points in five games. Round 2's target was Boston's David Pastrnak, who had two five-on-five points in six games. Round 3: New York's Artemi Panarin, who also could only muster two five-on-five points in six games.

McDavid broke through, collecting six five-on-five points, but he's McDavid. However, he inflicted damage only when Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov was on the bench. The score when the two centers were on the ice together at five-on-five: 1-1.

If there are people in your life who remain skeptical about Barkov's ability to fill Patrice Bergeron's role as the preeminent defensive forward in the sport, now and for the next decade, show them the statistic above. With the stakes impossibly high, Barkov drew even with McDavid in 44 head-to-head minutes.

Barkov, the longest-serving Panther, also bagged four game-winners on the run. Verhaeghe had three, while Reinhart and heart-and-soul winger Matthew Tkachuk pitched in two apiece. Rising star Gustav Forsling secured his place among the league's upper echelon of defensemen with superb defensive play. Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, solidified his Hockey Hall of Fame case with a Conn Smythe-caliber run and first Cup. Forwards Evan Rodrigues (seven goals, including four against Edmonton), Anton Lundell (17 points, plus flashes of Barkov-esque defensive play), and Eetu Luostarinen (Mr. Reliable every single night) all count as standouts further down the lineup.

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As is tradition, Barkov accepted the Cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. He hoisted it, then gave it to Bobrovsky, who passed it to fourth-line winger, 17-year vet, and trade-deadline addition Kyle Okposo.

"I wanted to put myself in the best position to win this year and made a hard decision three and a half months ago," Okposo said of moving from Buffalo - where he was captain - to Florida. "I thought that this was the best team. I said it from the first day that I got here: I wanted to be a spoke in the wheel."

Like Okposo, Maurice waited a long time for this. The former bench boss of the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes (twice), Toronto Maple Leafs, and Winnipeg Jets trails only Scotty Bowman in career NHL games coached. He looked directly into the broadcast camera as a champion and thanked his family for 30 years of support. "Hey Dad," he said in typical Maurice fashion, "your name is going up with your heroes. Beliveau. Richard. Howe. Lindsay. Maurice."

Another notable addition to sports' most stunning trophy: Tkachuk, whose father Keith had a storied career but never reached the mountaintop.

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The Panthers made the Cup Final in 1996, the club's third year of existence, but then struggled for a long time, from 1997-2021. They made the playoffs six times but failed to win a series in those 24 seasons. The past three years have been an entirely different story, with general manager Bill Zito, hired in September 2020, constructing a championship team largely through free agency and trades: Presidents' Trophy in 2021-22, Cup runner-up in 2022-23, Cup winner in 2023-24.

In July 2022, Zito famously acquired Tkachuk for longtime Cat Jonathan Huberdeau, and the trade's aged fantastically. Same goes for Zito's work from early April to late July 2021: Montour, Sam Bennett, and Reinhart all brought in via trade. Overall, 17 of the 21 players to appear in at least one game during Florida's playoff run were acquired via trade (eight) or free agency (nine). Zito made 15 of those transactions, while former GM Dale Tallon pulled off two.

That leaves four players: Forsling, Barkov, Ekblad, and Lundell. Forsling was claimed off waivers, while the others were drafted in the first round.

In other words, above all else, the Panthers are exceptional at evaluating players on other NHL teams. Again and again, the front office - whether it's Zito himself, his assistants, scouts, or analytics people - has identified the right player at the right time, and then folded him neatly into Maurice's lineup.

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The 2023-24 Panthers were versatile on offense, structured on defense, and disciplined relative to the chaos they caused during play and between whistles. The majority of the roster was deserving of the "defensively sound" label, and there's no denying some cues were taken from captain Barkov.

All pro athletes are highly competitive, but Florida had what seemed and felt like a disproportionate number of ultra-competitive players up and down its lineup; like those players wouldn't (eventually) be denied. It showed most in puck battles, on the forecheck and cycle, and along the boards in all three zones. And in the connectivity and love between linemates, teammates, and coaches.

"I got off the phone with them the summer I took the job and I kept telling my wife: 'These guys are different,'" Maurice told ESPN of the club's core pieces.

"It's the way they treat each other. They love each other. It starts with Barkov and it filters down. We have nine new guys this year, and then we brought in Okposo and (Vladimir) Tarasenko, and you can't tell they haven't been here for 10 years. It's got nothing to do with the coaches - nothing to do with us. That room has been special since Day 1."

He added later about the journey: "We needed to lose three in the Final to learn how to win four. And the fact that it was so hard makes it so special."

John Matisz is theScore's senior NHL writer. Follow John on Twitter (@MatiszJohn) or contact him via email (

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