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Edmonton Oilers fall short against poise of experienced Florida Panthers, drop Game 1 of Cup final

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final was an eye-opener for the Edmonton Oilers.

Unlike the Florida Panthers — who got a taste of the final just a year ago — only a handful of Oilers players have ever experienced Game 1 of a championship series: The energy. The pressure. The intensity.

It showed, and in Edmonton’s first Cup final game since 2006, the Oilers had plenty of opportunities but could not finish, falling 3-0 to the poised and stifling Panthers in Game 1.

“Game 1’s of series are always unique because you don’t know what to expect,” Oilers left wing Zach Hyman said. “You hear everything about what the team does. You watch video. But you haven’t played them for months. As the series settles in, you are pretty well aware of what works, what doesn’t work.”

For stars like Connor McDavid, a generational talent who has faced pressure since the moment he entered the league nine years ago, the game started business as usual.

McDavid showed off his unmatched acceleration in the opening period when he slipped past Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad for a one-on-one chance with goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, only to be denied in a theme that repeated itself throughout the night.

Even McDavid, who leads all scorers in the postseason with 31 points, couldn’t cut through the Florida defense despite no shortage of chances.

“I felt there was lots to like, to be honest,” said McDavid, the three-time league MVP playing in his first final. “I felt like we had lots and lots of looks, and didn’t give up too much. What we did give up was dangerous and they capitalized, as good teams do.”

McDavid added that Edmonton’s effort Saturday showed that the Oilers won’t let their lack of experience compared to the Panthers stop them.

“I know how many people gave us a chance in this series,” McDavid said, “and I think we showed tonight that we can play with them. That’s a confidence booster for this group — but we know that our best can play with anybody.”

Even without getting huge performances from stars like Matthew Tkachuk and captain Aleksander Barkov, the Panthers showed why they made it to the final a year ago — and it was clear that the bittersweet memory of losing to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games is still fresh.

“We know that Florida — probably that wasn’t their best game. We anticipate them being much better in the next one,” Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch said.

In all, Edmonton sent 32 shots at the 35-year-old Bobrovsky. He stopped all of them. Even in the rare moments when the Oilers got him out of position, the two-time Vezina trophy winner made big save after big save, which was a clear source of frustration for the Western conference winners.

Connor Brown looked to put Edmonton on the board in the second period when he jammed the puck under Bobrovsky’s right pad — right after the goalie had saved a wrist shot from Mattias Janmark — but the goal was waved off as it appeared that Brown had shoved Bobrovsky into the net with the puck.

Then a brief scuffle broke out, and a frustrated Janmark and Brown were both assessed penalties along, with Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Kevin Stenlund of the Panthers.

It was an example of the Oilers doing the right things to win, just not enough.

“It obviously makes us feel confident that we’re able to play a game like that for the full 60,” said goalie Stuart Skinner, who stopped 15 shots, “but at the same time, losing a game like that where you do play your full 60, it makes you need to get a little bit more of a push, especially they way that we can start and not get down on this team.”

They stretched their franchise-best penalty-kill streak to 30, killing off all three of Florida’s power plays.

But their power play that had been so effective throughout the postseason was fruitless. Edmonton, which entered the game converting at a postseason-leading 37.3% was 0 for 3 on the man advantage Saturday night.

“Maybe it was the hockey gods getting us back for that Game 6 (versus Dallas),” McDavid said, referring to Edmonton’s performance in the clinching Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, “where we probably didn’t deserve to win. Tonight maybe we deserved at least one goal, maybe two, and we don’t find a way to get them.”

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

By ALANIS THAMES
AP Sports Writer

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