SUNRISE, Fla. — Aleksander Barkov put his hands on either end of the Stanley Cup and began skating away to start the celebration that the Florida Panthers have wanted forever.

And as he began to hoist hockey’s chalice for the first time, he had one thought.

“It’s heavy,” he said.

A 37-pound trophy wasn’t too much for him, though, just as a three-game slide wasn’t too much for the Panthers. There was no stumble with the Cup, no collapse with the Cup on the line. The Panthers are champions for the first time after taking about the hardest path possible to the title.

Sam Reinhart and Carter Verhaeghe scored and Sergei Bobrovsky made 23 saves as the Panthers beat the Edmonton Oilers, 2-1, on Monday night in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

It was the third title-round appearance in the Panthers’ 30-year history; they were swept in 1996 by Colorado and routed 4-1 by Vegas last season. That loss last year was what this team needed.

“You have to go through it first,” forward Matthew Tkachuk said, “to know what it takes to get it done.”

Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid watches a drill during practice...

Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid watches a drill during practice before taking on the Florida Panthers tomorrow night in Game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey finals in Sunrise, Fla., on Sunday, June 23, 2024. Credit: AP/Nathan Denette

This time they were on the right side of history after avoiding what would have been a historic collapse. The Panthers won the first three games of the series, then lost the next three and needed a win on Monday to avoid joining the 1942 Detroit Red Wings as the only teams to lose the Cup Final after taking a 3-0 lead in the title round.

“You want to become a true champion and you want to win,” said Bobrovsky, 35. “But at the end of the day, you don’t do it for the Cups. You do it for the love of the game.”

It took 1,985 games, 939 wins, four different franchises, a team relocation, three firings (twice by Carolina alone) and a semi-retirement to get Panthers coach Paul Maurice to this moment, one he’d dreamed about for most of his 57 years walking the planet and had never experienced until now. “It’s not what I thought it would be,” he said of the feeling. “It’s so much better.”

It took until the very end for the Panthers to deny Connor McDavid his first title and prevent Edmonton from winning what would have been its first Cup since 1990.

Florida Panthers players acknowledge cheers from the fans at the...

Florida Panthers players acknowledge cheers from the fans at the end of the third period of Game 2 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. Credit: AP/Wilfredo Lee

McDavid won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs, but he didn’t come out for the trophy. It’s not the one he wanted. The Cup is what they play for, and it was Florida that hoisted it.

Five other players on losing teams have won the trophy since it was first awarded in 1965: Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2003 Mighty Ducks), Ron Hextall (1987 Flyers), Reggie Leach (1976 Flyers), Glenn Hall (1968 Blues) and Roger Crozier (1966 Red Wings).

“No player in the world wants to win the Stanley Cup more than him,” Oilers teammate Leon Draisaitl said of McDavid, who had one of the greatest individual postseasons in NHL history with 42 points. “He does everything right every single day.”

But the Panthers did a little more right on Monday. And that‘s the difference.

“It’s not a dream anymore. It’s not a dream. It’s reality,” Tkachuk said. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it . . . I can’t believe how good these two years have been. So thankful for this group of guys. It’s the best place, best guys. It’s something really special here with what we have.”

Mattias Janmark scored and Stuart Skinner stopped 19 shots for the Oilers, who couldn’t snap Canada’s title drought. No team based in Canada has won the Cup since Montreal in 1993.

Since then, there have been seven attempts by teams from Canadian-based cities — Vancouver in 1994 and 2011, Calgary in 2004, the Oilers in 2006 and 2024, Ottawa in 2007 and the Canadiens in 2021 — to win titles, and all were in vain.

Florida led this title series 3-0, then got outscored 18-5 in Games 4, 5 and 6 to waste three chances at winning the Cup. Edmonton was one win away from becoming the second team in NHL history to win the Cup after dropping the first three games; Toronto did it to Detroit in 1942, and no team has pulled off such a comeback since.

“They should have their heads up high,” Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch said. “There’s lots to be proud of.”


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