The first two Game 7s of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs lived up to the hype. And when the dust settled, both the defending champs and the team many assumed would take this year’s title were left wondering what went wrong. Ryan Dixon has his takeaways from two stunning upsets on Sunday.
The first two Game 7s of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs lived up to the hype. And when the dust settled, both the defending champs and the team many assumed would take this year’s title were left wondering what went wrong.
The Seattle Kraken managed to notch the first playoff series win in franchise history in only their second year of existence by bouncing the 2022 champs from Colorado, while the Florida Panthers claimed just their second series victory in over 25 years with a jaw-dropper of a win over the Boston Bruins.
Panthers stun Bruins, complete the comeback
After squandering the 2-0 lead they built in Game 7, the Panthers were 60 seconds away from penning yet another disappointing chapter in franchise history. After erasing a 3-1 series deficit, it seemed like the only thing the Panthers would leave Boston with was some kind words in the handshake line about their resilience from an opponent that was supposed to walk all over them.
But that wasn’t good enough for these Cats. Brandon Montour netted his second of the night and fifth of the series to tie the game 3-3 with the Florida net empty. Then in overtime, Carter Verhaeghe sniped one just under the bar past Jeremy Swayman — making his first start of the series in the winner-take-all affair — to send the record-setting, 65-win Boston Bruins packing with a 4-3 Florida win.
“Never count out the Florida Panthers,” said no one, ever — or at least not since 1996, when this team went to the Stanley Cup Final in Year 3 of its existence.
It’s been pretty bleak since then, the latest embarrassment coming 12 months ago when Florida — last year’s regular-season champs — was bounced in four straight games by its rivals from Tampa Bay.
That forced a summer of soul-searching that saw the squad hire Paul Maurice as coach and send the franchise’s all-time leading scorer at the time, Jonathan Huberdeau, to Calgary in a deal for a guy they acquired with playoff success in mind. Matthew Tkachuk didn’t get on the scoresheet in Game 7, but guess who was standing right in front of Swayman providing the screen as Verhaeghe lasered home the winner.
Tkachuk scored four times from Games 4 through 6, including the Game 5 extra-time winner that kickstarted this comeback. His presence on this team completely changed the complexion and attitude of the Panthers.
“It really is the biggest upset in NHL history to every single person other than the guys in that room,” Tkachuk told Sportsnet’s Caroline Cameron on the ice after the game.
And while it’s technically the second-biggest upset — the 1982 Kings stunned the Edmonton Oilers in a best-of-five after finishing 48 points behind them in the standings — you get the point. Boston finished 43 points ahead of Florida, which had to go 12-4-1 down the stretch just to eke into the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference. (The 43-point difference is the biggest margin a team has overcome in a seven-game series).
And how about this: Four years ago Sergei Bobrovsky backstopped the Columbus Blue Jackets to a stunning first-round sweep of a Lighting team that put up 132 points. Now, after stepping in for Alex Lyon in Game 4, Bobrovsky has had by far his best moment as a Panther by earning three straight W’s to bounce the B’s.
The Bruins, who smothered teams all season long, just failed to deliver the knock-out blow versus the Cats. They couldn’t find an overtime marker on home ice in Game 5; they allowed Florida to tie Game 6 twice in the third period before finally losing it; and after erasing a 2-0 deficit in Game 7 and getting the building rocking, Boston just couldn’t make it through the final minute without surrendering the equalizer.
Captain Patrice Bergeron, the guy who’s helped Boston squeak out so many tight playoff wins in his nearly 20-year career, looked absolutely devastated in the aftermath of this loss. He may have just played his last game in the NHL. All we know for sure is his team played its final contest of this second season much, much sooner than almost any of us expected.
Avs reign ends, Kraken rise
Call it the Oliver Bjorkstrand game.
The Dane was absolutely dominant, scoring both goals in a 2-1 victory for Seattle as the Kraken claimed their third win of the series in Denver. Bjorkstrand’s first of the night — the type of get-to-the-net greasy deflection you often need in a Game 7 — came 3:24 into the middle frame and made it a clean sweep for the Kraken as they opened in the scoring in every match of this set.
Bjorkstrand’s second came about four minutes later and this one was a thing of beauty as he whizzed down the left side of the ice and clanked one off the far post and in past Alexandar Georgiev to put the Kraken up 2-0.
While that shot kissed off the post and in, Bjorkstrand — who was just flying all night — clanked three more posts behind Georgiev in what was surely the game of his life.
That said, this was still an absolute nail-biter thanks to Nathan MacKinnon pulling his squad to within one just before the second period expired. It actually seemed as though MacKinnon — who was also absolutely everywhere in this game — had notched his second of the night and tied the contest early in the third, but a Seattle challenge revealed the Avs were off-side entering the offensive zone.
That was the last time Colorado was able to get anything past former teammate Philipp Grubauer who, after an incredibly underwhelming regular season, turned into a puck-stopping beast for the Kraken at the start of the playoffs.
The Avs threw the house at Seattle in the dying minutes, but Bjorkstrand put his mark on the game one last time, jumping on a Cale Makar bobble at the blue line to clear the zone and secure the unlikely series win for Seattle.
With that, two wild-card teams that were supposed to be satisfied merely with being in the big dance left enemy territory with tickets to Round 2.