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This Is All Anyone Could’ve Hoped For

Edmonton Oilers celebrate a goal
Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Thanks to their 3-2 series lead, the Florida Panthers remain the favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup on either Friday or Monday. But for the Edmonton Oilers, getting to Game 6 feels like a cathartic reward in itself. With a 5-3 victory in a hazardously stressful Game 5 down south, the Oilers have earned an ultimate game for their home fans—a game that, unlike the bizarre and seemingly futile 8-1 beatdown last Saturday, feels like a clash of unmatched importance between a pair of worthy would-be champions. After the disasters of their first three games in the Final, a 3-2 deficit has Edmonton looking like heroes already.

The first few minutes of Tuesday night's action saw the Panthers respond to the indignity of their elimination-game trouncing in the exact way their supporters would have hoped: They hustled to pucks behind the Oilers' net, harassed Edmonton out of possession, and basically played like their own third of the rink was closed for construction. When Brett Kulak was whistled for a high stick to deliver a Florida power play five minutes in, it seemed to give the Cats a foothold with which they could establish clearcut superiority. Instead, just like in Game 4, the Albertan kill unit seized all the momentum for itself.

If you're looking for a psychological angle, you could say the Panthers relaxed too much with the man advantage and got blindsided by Edmonton's resistance. Whatever it was that made Brandon Montour try to mail a blue-line-length pass to Aleksander Barkov, Connor Brown sniffed it out to poke the puck with his stick. From there, he just had to outskate Barkov to earn a breakaway, then beat Sergei Bobrovsky with his backhand. Easy.

The 1-0 lead lasted through intermission, and even though the Panthers have earned their fearsome playoff rep by getting stronger as the sun goes down, it was the Oilers who piled on early in the second. First it was Zach Hyman, who remembered how to be in the right place at the right time as he deflected an Evan Bouchard blast into the net. Then Connor McDavid, after some great hustle by Warren Foegele to control the puck in the O-zone, seemed to take advantage of a mentally cracked Bobrovsky as he squeezed a wide-angle shot past the goalie's foot.

It was a 3-0 edge, but Edmonton wasn't allowed to cruise from there. As Florida made their push in a messy, chaotic second and then a white-knuckle third, it was this burst of McDavid genius on a setup to Corey Perry that proved the difference-maker. To earn this assist, his 34th of the playoffs, McDavid busted open a four-man Panthers unit that appeared prepared to trap him. In that beautifully effortless way of his, he slipped by Eetu Luostarinen with a move to his left, split two defenders with a quick cut, and in a great scoring position knew exactly when to slide the puck over to Perry for the better chance. These are the goals that can make you believe.

After Florida fought back to 4-3, the closing stretch of this one recalled the somewhat fortunate defense-first Edmonton victories of earlier in the playoffs, like 2-1 over Dallas in Game 6 and 1-0 over Los Angeles in Game 4. While so many of my instincts tell me that, in this situation, Plan A should be to give McDavid or Leon Draisaitl some freedom to cook up a goal that doubles their lead, the Oilers have instead instructed their skaters to play safe, smart, conservative hockey and trust their goalie Stuart Skinner to stop all the pucks they need him to. For all the aches the late Panther siege must have caused in Oiler bellies, it worked. Florida's disruptions in the slot and their challenges to Skinner's pads had no effect. Edmonton didn't falter like they did when the Panthers wore them down in Game 2, and despite Matthew Tkachuk's lunging effort to keep the puck out of the empty net, McDavid earned another goal on the rebound with 20 seconds remaining.

What once looked like a rote path to a conclusion twinning this year's NBA Finals is now as tense and thrilling as any series can be. Heading into Game 6, everyone—even Florida—has to be feeling pretty good. The Panthers are just one win away from immortality. The Oilers can pull level with just one more triumph at home. The neutrals get at least one more night watching McDavid try to tear apart the year's most impressive team (so far). Eat your heart out, Adam Silver. This is hockey time.

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