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.

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.

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.

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.

He 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 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.


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