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Stanley Cup stage set for McDavid, Oilers in final game of roller-coaster season

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Connor McDavid envisioned this moment.

Growing up in the suburbs north of Toronto - whether it was the outdoor rinks, the arenas or on the street with friends - hockey glory danced in his mind's eye.

Just like countless Canadian kids.

"You always dreamt of yourself playing in that game and scoring that big goal," McDavid said. "You're not sure you're ever going to get that opportunity."

After a roller-coaster season and a playoffs with plenty more twists and turns, the stage is set for the superstar captain.

McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers face the Florida Panthers in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final Monday - the last hurdle in an improbable journey this season.

A disastrous start to the schedule. Last in the overall standings. A coaching change. A near-record-breaking winning streak. Playoff pushback.

And a trio of victories after trailing the title series 3-0.

"It's been fun to be a part of," McDavid said. "The group has played some of our best hockey over the course of the last seven, eight days. We feel good about where things are at.

"It comes down to one game."

Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid, middle in white, finishes a drill during practice on June 23, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla., the day before taking on the Florida Panthers in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)Edmonton is looking to become just the fifth team in NHL history to win a best-of-seven series after trailing 3-0. The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs - in the middle of the Second World War, some 82 years ago - are the only club to accomplish the feat in the final when they stormed back on the Detroit Red Wings.

The Oilers, who last sat atop the NHL mountain in 1990 when the franchise won its fifth championship, can also end the Cup drought for Canadian-based clubs dating back to the Montreal Canadiens' 1993 victory.

"We're all human, and we're aware of the situation and what we've accomplished so far," said Edmonton centre Leon Draisaitl, the Robin to McDavid's Batman through their careers in the Alberta capital. "We have to focus on winning one hockey game on the road and play our best.

"All the stories will take care of itself after."

Florida raced out to its 3-0 lead before McDavid took over in Game 4 and Game 5 with a pair of mesmerizing four-point displays.

The Oilers then picked up a 5-1 victory in Game 6 - the third time the Cup was polished and ready to be presented to the Panthers - at home Friday to send everyone back to South Florida.

"Just sticking with it," Edmonton centre Adam Henrique said. "Believing in each other."

Panthers want to avoid epic collapse

Florida, meanwhile, is aiming to avoid an ugly place in the record books.

The Panthers remain in a terrific position to win the franchise's first Cup after losing in the 1996 final and then again last spring. But the motivation of not having your name associated with an epic collapse might be just as big a motivator.

"Doesn't matter how it's gone or how you draw it up," Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk said at the team's Fort Lauderdale practice facility ahead of the 1,400th and final contest of the NHL campaign.

"They lost the first three, we lost the next three … it's even right now. It doesn't matter what has happened to get to this point.

"It's easy to forget."

Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his goal during the third period of Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals against the Florida Panthers, Tuesday, June 18, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. The Oilers defeated the Panthers 5-3. (Rebecca Blackwell / The Associated Press)Edmonton, which holds a 20-5 aggregate scoreline over the last 10 periods, has ridden solid goaltending Stuart Skinner and detail-oriented defensive structure to get into a position not many outside the locker room predicted just 10 days ago.

It is, however, slightly easier to believe when your team has the best player in the world.

"He can do magical things," Edmonton winger Corey Perry said of McDavid, a three-time NHL MVP. "It's not a switch he flips, but all of a sudden he's dancing through three or four guys."

The only Oilers player with a Cup ring won with Anaheim in 2007. Perry then lost in 2020 with Dallas, in 2021 with Montreal, and in 2022 with Tampa Bay.

"You dream of playing Game 7s and being a hero, on the backyard rink, on the street," he said. "Now it's reality. Now you get to live that. Somebody, and hopefully he's in this room … will go down in history for being the hero.”

Florida Panthers' Oliver Ekman-Larsson (91) and Aleksander Barkov (16) celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during Game 6 of the NHL Stanley Cup Final in Edmonton on June 21, 2024. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)The Panthers have the same hope.

"I was one of those kids," Florida captain Aleksander Barkov said. "I'm thinking about like, 'This is Game 7 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.' You think about those moments.

"Now it's becoming a truth … the most exciting time to be a hockey player."

It's fitting on some level the furthest distance between cities in a final - Edmonton and Sunrise are more than 4,000 kilometres apart - is going the distance.

"It's been a long road to get to this point," said McDavid, the first pick at the 2015 draft and hockey's most-hyped talent since Sidney Crosby.

"A lot of ups and downs, a lot of lessons along the way."

And a lot of dreams about what Monday might bring.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2024. 

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