Stanley Cup Final returns to Edmonton 4 years since the city hosted the series in a bubble

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — While the Oilers are in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2006, their home city and arena have hosted the NHL’s championship series much more recently.

Edmonton’s Rogers Place and surrounding ICE District made up one of the two playoff bubbles put together to complete the 2019-20 season during the pandemic, serving as the site for the first two rounds in the West, the conference finals and then the Cup final.

Four years since that surreal experience, several players who made runs of varying degrees in an empty arena are back in this final between the Oilers and Florida Panthers, which is quite the opposite with orange-and-blue clad fans packing the building.

“Obviously, it was a different experience than it is now,” said Florida’s Carter Verhaeghe, who hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2020 as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. “With the fans and everything, it makes a big difference (with) traveling (and) home-ice advantage and stuff like that.”

Edmonton’s Corey Perry spent 80 days in that bubble on the Dallas Stars run to the final that ended with a six-game series loss to Tampa Bay. Back playing for the Cup for a fourth time in five years, the veteran winger remembers the whole process being a challenge, particularly off the ice.

“It’s not easy: 79 or 80 days, whatever it was, in the hotel room: sitting in a hotel room, the same path to the rink, the same restaurants that were open,” Perry said. “Mentally, it was exhausting and tough, but we found a way.”

Teammate Derek Ryan, who had a shorter stint with the Calgary Flames winning their qualifying round series and losing the next one, called it a mental grind.

“You’re away from everybody,” Ryan said. “You’re kind of isolated from everyone besides your team, basically. … It’s crazy to imagine living through that. It was pretty wild.”

On the ice was wild in a very different way, with tarps covering the stands and no crowd noise. Florida’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who was in the bubble with Arizona for two rounds, said players did not have to be too loud calling out to teammates.

There was still plenty of yelling to rachet up the intensity.

“You had to create your own energy,” Perry said. “You had to create emotion. You didn’t feed off that from the fans. You didn’t hear that from the fans. It was tough. But you heard everything. And everything that was said on the ice, everybody could hear it in the arena.”

In retrospect, Ekman-Larsson called it a great experience because he and so many players, coaches and staff can say they lived through it — and hope to never do anything like that again.

“We got the chance to play hockey during a pandemic, so I think we were fortunate to do that,” Ekman-Larsson said. “It was crazy times, but we’re happy to be here now with two sold-out buildings and a lot of fun.”

Barkov set to play

Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov was cleared to play in Game 3 Thursday night after leaving midway through the third period of his team’s Game 2 victory following a high hit from Edmonton star Leon Draisaitl. Barkov practiced each of the past five days and did not have to go into concussion protocol.

“It’s never easy when someone like that goes down, especially in a huge part of the game with nine, 10 minutes left,” forward Sam Reinhart said. “It shows to the character of him and how bad he wants it, as well, to get back and not really miss much else. ”

Having Barkov, the Selke Trophy winner as the league’s best defensive forward during the regular season and a candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, in the lineup is a big deal for the Panthers because of the impact he can make all over the ice.

Coach Paul Maurice said on the road, where he does not have the last line change to control matchups, Barkov can shine offensively.


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