Okposo FLA in for GM7 tune in

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Kyle Okposo got to live out his Game 7 dream.

The 36-year-old forward replaced Nick Cousins in the Florida Panthers lineup for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers at Amerant Bank Arena on Monday.

Okposo played in the first five games of the series but was scratched and replaced by Cousins in the 5-1 loss in Game 6 in Edmonton on Saturday.

Florida had a 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 series, but the Oilers won the previous three games to force Game 7, becoming the first team since 1945 to win three in a row in the Stanley Cup Final after losing the first three.

"It was solely hockey based, but a difficult thing to do to take a Game 7 away from someone because it's such a rare thing," Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. "Nick is so incredibly loved by his teammates. I just felt that looking back at the three previous games our team played, I liked the games that Kyle played slightly better than Nick's. It wasn't bad. It wasn't an obvious mistake or reason."

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Okposo had no points and was minus-2 while averaging 8:25 of ice time in the first five games of the series. He was credited with 19 hits, which is third on Florida, and five blocked shots. Cousins had no points and two blocked shots in 9:48 of ice time in Game 6.

Okposo was the right wing on the fourth line with center Kevin Stenlund and left wing Ryan Lomberg.

Maurice said there were other situations that factored into his decision to insert Okposo, who is a right-handed shooter, ahead of Cousins, who is left-handed. He mentioned the way the Panthers change on the fly as a reason.

But it didn't make the decision to scratch Cousins any easier, Maurice added.

"The hockey part I didn't agonize over," Maurice said. "But it was hard. [Cousins] handled it incredibly well. Team first, good luck, whatever you guys need and that's why his teammates love him."

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The opportunity to play in the 18th Game 7 in Stanley Cup Final history was clearly impacting Okposo emotionally. Before this season he hadn't played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2016 with the New York Islanders. He has played in one previous Game 7, but that was with the Islanders in the first round in 2015, a 2-1 loss at the Washington Capitals.

Florida acquired Okposo in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres on March 8.

"I grabbed my son today who is 8 and just said, 'You know what I was doing when I was your age? I was in the driveway with my roller blades on pretending I was in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final,' " Okposo said after practice Sunday. "I said, 'How special that you're going to be able to go to the game?'

"Definitely, you've got to embrace it. You've got to just smile and enjoy it. This is the 18th one so there's 18 different sets of players that have experienced this match and you have to embrace every second of it."

Okposo said he was often the one scoring the game-winning goal in Game 7s in his driveway.

"My buddies weren't that good, so," he said. "No, I mean, there's a lot of memories flooding back about that. That's what everybody thinks about and very few people get to live it. We're living it. Just can't wait to enjoy it."

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