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A bit of history for the Panthers, who lead a Stanley Cup Final for the first time

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — This one surely felt different to the Florida Panthers, for a lot of reasons.

They led after one period of a Stanley Cup Final game for the first time since 1996. They led after two periods for the first time in a title-round game. They led a Cup final game by more than one goal for the first time — ever.

Most importantly, for the first time, they walked out of an arena leading a title series. Sergei Bobrovsky was at a superstar level in net, Carter Verhaeghe and Evan Rodrigues scored, Eetu Luostarinen got an empty-netter with 4.4 seconds left and the Panthers beat the Edmonton Oilers 3-0 on Saturday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

“We’re going to find out how much better we can get,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.

A franchise that was swept in the 1996 final against Colorado and routed in last year’s final against Vegas — Florida got a game in that series, but never had much of a chance to win the thing — very much looked like a club poised to win it all.

And they can only hope that a recent trend continues: Game 1 winners of the Stanley Cup Final have won the title in 14 of the last 18 seasons.

“We got better as the game went on,” Rodrigues said. “After a week off, I thought our legs got under us as the game went on.”

The Panthers led for 56:01 of the 60 minutes. Hard as this may be to believe, that’s more time with a lead than Florida had in the 1996 and 2023 Cup finals — combined. And they won this one in a very non-Florida way, with the Panthers force to take advantage of rare opportunities instead of the constant flow of them that they usually generate.

“It feels good. Always feels good to win,” Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk said. “But we’ve got a lot of things to clean up and to get better at. They played well. We played well enough to win, just really grinded it out.”

Florida took the second-most shots in the NHL this season with 2,764, just four fewer than Edmonton took. The Panthers get tons of pucks on net, near the net, around the net, always putting pressure on goaltenders to make saves and opponents to block shots on the way to those goalies.

Except this one was different. For only the fourth time in 100 games this season, Florida got outshot by more than 10 tries on goal.

Didn’t matter, thanks to Bobrovsky.

“We had some chances to score goals,” Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch said, “and they didn’t go in.”

Bobrovsky stopped breakaways, stopped point-blank shots, stopped everything, sometimes without a stick. He stoned Oilers star Connor McDavid in the third period to preserve a 2-0 lead, a save so good that all McDavid could do after the whistle was stand in the crease in what probably was disbelief.

“It’s fun to play against those guys, those elite guys,” Bobrovsky said. “It’s a fun atmosphere and it’s fun to be there.”

It’s just one game, just one win, and nobody is making parade plans just yet. But for the first time, the Panthers aren’t skating uphill in a title series. It’s a start and Florida doesn’t see it as anything more than that.

“Quiet,” Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said when asked about the postgame mood in the locker room. “This team is all business.”

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL

By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Sports Writer

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