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Florida Panthers cool, calm, collected on brink of winning Stanley Cup with Game 4 at Edmonton Oilers tonight

Florida Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky makes a save against the Oilers during the second period in Game 3 of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals on Thursday in Edmonton, Alberta. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

EDMONTON, Alberta — One win away from a championship, it feels like the Florida Panthers are treating Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final like Game 44 of the regular season.

“Our whole mindset right now is recovering and getting prepared for the next game,” forward Sam Bennett said after beating the Edmonton Oilers in Game 3 to move to the verge of a sweep. “I don’t think anyone can really look ahead.”

With coach Paul Maurice and captain Aleksander Barkov setting the tone, the Panthers are looking ahead only to Game 4 on the road tonight as the next challenge in their season-long journey. They can bring home the Cup for the first time in franchise history but are approaching the opportunity in the same businesslike manner they’ve had all playoffs.

“We’ve done such a good job of having that one-game, simple mindset: Win your first period, win your first few shifts,” winger Matthew Tkachuk said Friday. “Just a really calm, kind of chill and relaxed group today. Use that to our advantage.”

One major advantage is being in the final for a second consecutive time, though this series is the opposite for Florida after injuries piled up and the gas ran out last year against Vegas. The core group also knows what it’s like to be facing elimination this late in the playoffs, seeing the Golden Knights close it out in their first chance in 2023.

Maurice does not believe finishing any series, especially the final, is not about killer instinct, but he wants the Panthers to acknowledge it’s an elimination game and a situation most of his players and staff have never been in before.

“We go back to what we know,” Maurice said. “There’s nothing new to what we’re going to do. The puck’s going to drop, it’s going to be the exact same sport, so there’s nothing new here. The context is different.”

The context is being up 3-0 in the series despite arguably being outplayed in two of the three games. They have the better goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky, who has stopped 82 of 86 shots and whose .953 save percentage ranks in the top 10 in a final in NHL history, and they have scored on their opportunities while the Oilers have not.

Edmonton coach Kris Knoblauch thinks his players not finishing has been the difference in the series, pointing to analytics that show they are getting more quality scoring chances than in any of the first three rounds.

“It’s just being able to put the puck in the net, which is obviously a very big part of the game,” Knoblauch said.

The Oilers have players who were on the two most recent teams to fall behind 3-0 in the Cup final: Corey Perry with Montreal in 2021 and Adam Henrique with New Jersey in 2012. Each of those teams avoided being swept, and the Devils even forced a Game 6 with similar coast-to-coast back and forth travel as this series.

“When everybody writes you off, you believe in the group in here,” said Henrique, who scored the Game 4-winning goal 12 years ago. “It’s certainly a big hill to climb, but you don’t look at the whole picture. You look at taking those first couple steps, get that first one and go from there. It’s a challenge that we’re certainly up to.”

The league has not had a 4-0 Stanley Cup Final since Detroit swept Washington in 1998 to go back to back. The last time a team erased a 3-0 deficit to win the final was the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1942, also against Detroit.

Perry, the first player to reach the final with five different organizations, echoed a lot of teammates’ observations that the Oilers think they have earned better than a 3-0 series deficit. But to a man they realize the predicament and long odds they are facing.

“We’ve put ourselves in a big hole, no question,” Perry said. “Do we think we can be in a better situation? Possibly. They’re a good team though. They’ve capitalized on our mistakes and that’s probably the games.”

If it continues, that’s the series and the Panthers will be able to party with the Stanley Cup on their nearly six-hour flight home to South Florida. Before Game 4 begins, they are just tying desperately to keep those celebratory thoughts out of sight and out of mind to keep them from becoming a distraction.

“We never think too much ahead,” said Barkov, who along with Bobrovsky is a top candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. “It’s there for us, but you don’t think about it. You can’t think about it. All you have to do is take one moment at a time.”

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL

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