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Panthers keeping cool as host Oilers try to force Game 7 in finals

USA TODAY
                                The Edmonton Oilers celebrate their win against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.
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USA TODAY

The Edmonton Oilers celebrate their win against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.

Pressure? What pressure?

That is the attitude of the Florida Panthers are they prepare for their third chance to close out the Stanley Cup Final on Friday at the Edmonton Oilers.

The Panthers appeared well on their way to claiming the first championship in franchise history while winning the first three games of the best-of-seven series, but have dropped the last two games, the latest Tuesday’s 5-3 loss in Sunrise, Fla.

The Panthers are doing their best to remain calm about the moment, knowing full well the screws will tighten if they drop this game and head to a deciding Game 7 at home.

“Go up there and we’ve got to win one game,” forward Evan Rodrigues said. “That’s our mindset and that’s what we’re going to do.”

That said, the Panthers are not sticking with status quo. Coach Paul Maurice appears set to make a couple of changes based on Thursday’s practice. Left winger Carter Verhaeghe, in need of an offensive jolt, skated on the top line while fellow left winger Rodrigues switched spots and was moved to the second line.

As well, forward Nick Cousins received a present on his 31st birthday with news he will be back in the lineup in place of Kyle Okposo on the fourth line. Cousins had been a healthy scratch for the past eight postseason games.

“Those guys that have kind of come in and out of the lineup, you can just tell that it’s not easy for them,” Maurice said. “But in their off-time, and being under less game intensity, they come back in and they’re jacked.”

Whether those roster moves and the reset after last game are the tonic for the Panthers remains to be seen, but the Oilers have pulled back from the brink with a couple of outstanding performances.

They are looking to join only the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup after losing the first three games of the finals.

“We feel very fortunate to be in this situation, but I know I have a team full of guys who are hungry to make sure they get to play two more games and not just one,” coach Kris Knoblauch said.

The Oilers have executed the game plan perfectly to turn the tide. Not only have they won the last two games, but the victories came in emphatic fashion by a combined 13-4 score. Holding the Panthers in check while showing their high-octane offense has been an impressive feat.

“It’s been lovely to see,” goaltender Stuart Skinner said. “I think we’ve got a lot of guys fully committed to playing both ends of the ice, which is an absolute need, especially at this time of the year.”

Of course it helps when the Oilers have Connor McDavid leading the way. McDavid, who is only the third player in NHL history to collect 40 points in a single postseason, posted consecutive four-point performances to elevate his team to this point in their comeback. He is at 42, only behind Wayne Gretzky with 47 in 1985, Mario Lemiuex with 44 in 1991 and Gretzky with 43 in 1988.

This year’s playoff run has shown McDavid’s ability to embrace the biggest of moments and excel during them.

“You spend your life working to get into a position like this. When you’re here, you think there’s going to be some magic feeling, but it’s all been pretty normal,” McDavid said. “This has always been part of the plan for our group. A position like this, playing big games at home, big moments, and there’s another tomorrow night.”

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