Sergei Bobrovsky [600x400]
Sergei Bobrovsky [600x400] (Credit: AP Photo/Michael Laughlin)

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SUNRISE, Fla. -- For the first time in franchise history, the Florida Panthers have a lead in the Stanley Cup Final. They have Sergei Bobrovsky to thank for it.

The Panthers goaltender shut out Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers in Game 1 on Saturday night, 3-0. He took on the Oilers' explosive scoring talent -- and their dominant power play -- and stopped all 32 shots he faced, as jubilant Panthers fans chanted "Bobby!" in his honor.

"It's fun to play against those guys, those elite guys," Bobrovsky said. "They are a great offensive team. They bring a good challenge."

There had been 15 previous shutouts in Game 1 of the Cup Final, the last one coming in 2011 by Vancouver Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo, who is now a member of the Panthers' front office. Bobrovsky is the oldest goalie (35 years, 252 days) to record a shutout in Game 1 of a Cup Final.

The Oilers outshot the Panthers 32-18, including a 12-4 advantage in the first period. For the majority of the 2024 postseason, Bobrovsky hasn't faced the same kind of shot volume that he did in Florida's run to the finals last season. That wasn't the case in Game 1 as the Oilers had 32 shots on 70 shot attempts. He handled the increased shot volume perfectly.

"He's just been unreal. His preparation is incredible. He's everything that you want in a teammate and especially a goalie," forward Matthew Tkachuk said. "He was there for us tonight."

Florida built its lead in each period. The Panthers took a 1-0 lead on Carter Verhaeghe's 10th goal of the postseason at 3:59 of the first period, converting an Aleksander Barkov pass to send the home fans into an early frenzy.

"He's an unusual performer, that man," coach Paul Maurice said of Verhaeghe. "He can raise that level of play. I don't know that I have much to say about it. I don't know that I fully understand it. That guy's a gamer."

Florida made it 2-0 on an Evan Rodrigues goal on a great feed from center Sam Bennett at 2:16 of the second. Then Eetu Luostarinen iced it with an empty-netter in the third period.

Bobrovsky had a series' worth of highlight-reel saves in Game 1. He stopped breakaway chances from Adam Henrique, Mattias Janmark and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the latter on a tremendous pad save. He was there for a McDavid deflection from a Leon Draisaitl pass in the third.

"He's amazing down low and he's also amazing up high. It's hard to beat him. He's an incredible goalie. He does a great job sealing the ice," Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner said. "You've just got to somehow find a way to score a goal on him. We've been playing some top-end goaltenders and it's never easy to beat these guys."

The Oilers had an 18-6 advantage in high-danger shot attempts in Game 1. Bobrovsky was poised to handle all of them and handed Edmonton its first shutout of the playoffs.

"Maybe it was the hockey gods getting us back for that Game 6 [against Dallas] where we probably didn't deserve to win," McDavid said, referencing the game in which the Oilers were outshot 34-10 but eliminated the Stars for the Western Conference title. "Tonight, maybe we deserved at least one goal, maybe two, and we don't find a way to get them."

Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch said there was a lot to like about his team's game, but that Edmonton needs to find another level for Game 2.

"We know that we're going to have to get even better," he said. "We know that probably wasn't Florida's best game. We expect them to be much better. I think they [were] probably caught off guard with you guys talking about how good they were and we didn't have a chance in this series."

The most impactful part of Bobrovsky's Game 1 masterpiece was on the Panthers' penalty kill. This special teams showdown was expected to be the most critical matchup of the finals: Edmonton's all-world power play, converting over 37% of its opportunities, against Florida's penalty kill, second in the playoffs at 88.2% and coming off a conference finals in which it thwarted 14 of 15 New York Rangers power plays.

Bobrovsky made six saves as the backbone of the Panthers' kill in Game 1.

"There's nights where you will say that the driver of [the penalty kill] is the players, but tonight the driver of it was Sergei," Maurice said. "With those elite shooters, you're not getting through that penalty kill without your goaltender at some point."

Game 2 is Monday night. Teams that win Game 1 of the finals have gone on to win the series 76% of the time. Each of the past three Cup winners won Game 1.

It was a big victory for the Panthers on Saturday night, thanks to their star goaltender.

"Every win is a big win," Bobrovsky said. "But it's a long series. So, we're going to reset, refocus and get ready for the next fight."