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STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW : Florida Panthers vs. Edmonton Oilers

Connor McDavid (97) (Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire)

By the end of the month, the Panthers will raise the Cup for the first time in franchise history or the Oilers will become the first Canadian team to win it all since 1993. Edmonton’s Kris Knoblauch will either start his NHL head coaching career with a championship or Florida’s Paul Maurice will finally get his title after first becoming a bench boss with the Hartford Whalers in 1995-96 and falling short of the ultimate prize in his other two trips to the finals.

Like their coach, this is also the Panthers’ third attempt to win the Cup after losing in the finals to Colorado in 1996 and Vegas in 2023. The core of forwards Matthew Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov, Carter Verhaeghe, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, defensemen Gustav Forsling and Aaron Ekblad as well as starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky were all part of that squad that lost to the Golden Knights last year. This is a group that knows better than almost any other what to expect in the playoffs, and they’re doubtlessly hungry after coming up short in their previous attempt.

They’re also deserving of their back-to-back journeys to the Stanley Cup Final. While there have been years where Bobrovsky’s seven-year, $70 million contract has looked excessive, the 35-year-old netminder has come through in the clutch in key moments of the last two playoff runs. He hasn’t been infallible, but his 12-5 record, 2.20 GAA and .908 save percentage through 17 playoff contests this year has gotten the job done and comes on the heels of a strong regular season in which he posted a 36-17-4 record, 2.37 GAA and .915 save percentage across 58 starts.

Bobrovsky would be the key element of a lesser team, but the Panthers haven’t asked him to do it all. They were tied for fourth in the regular season with an xGA/60 of 2.78 and have the best xGA/60 in the playoffs (2.47), which suggests that the defense in front of Bobrovsky has been making the netminder’s job easier.

He’s also been getting solid goal support. Florida ranked 11th in the regular season with 3.23 goals per game and that’s remained steady in the playoffs at 3.24. The attack has been led in the postseason by Tkachuk, Verhaeghe and Barkov, who each have provided at least five goals and 17 points through 17 outings. Reinhart hasn’t been able to extend his incredible 57-goal performance from the regular season, but with eight goals and 12 points across 17 playoff appearances, he’s yet another threat the Oilers can’t ignore. That just scratches the surface too -- 10 Panthers players are entering this series with at least three goals to their name in the 2024 playoffs.

It's a lot for Edmonton to have to deal with, especially because goaltender Stuart Skinner isn’t always reliable. He’s had his rough patches in this playoff run, which has left him with a mediocre .897 save percentage. At the same time, he’s not always bad either, and much like the Oilers as a whole, he’s managed to prove those who doubt him wrong more often than not.

Few would have bet on Edmonton reaching the Stanley Cup Final after getting off to a 2-9-1 start and even less would have predicted Skinner would be the goaltender to carry them there after going 1-5-1 with a 3.87 GAA and an .854 save percentage in eight appearances across that season-opening stretch. And yet, here we are -- not only are the Oilers in the finals, but it was Skinner who punched their ticket after saving 33 of 34 shots en route to a series-clinching Game 6 victory over Dallas.

If the Oilers get games like that out of Skinner against Florida, that would be an incredible boost for Edmonton, but it’s not necessarily what the Oilers need to win this series. While Florida is more than just Bobrovsky, that sentiment works even better when speaking of Edmonton and its top goaltender.

Like the Panthers, Edmonton makes life as easy on its netminder as possible on most nights. You’ll recall that the Panthers were tied for fourth in xGA/60 in the regular season, and the team that matched them was Edmonton. The Oilers have continued to excel defensively in the playoffs with an xGA/60 of 2.65, so while the goaltending isn’t always going to be perfect, this year’s finals include two teams that play responsible hockey.

Getting Edmonton to play sound defensively was a multiyear project and the rewards of those efforts have led to this championship, but when you think of the Oilers, the first thing to come to mind is understanding not their play in their zone.

You don’t think of the supporting cast either, though it’s gotten impressive over the years thanks to the addition of Zach Hyman, Evander Kane and defenseman Mattias Ekholm along with the growth of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Even blueliner Evan Bouchard isn’t what makes the headlines despite him recording six goals and 27 points through 18 playoff contests this year, making it the fifth most ever recorded by a defenseman (just two behind Cale Makar’s 29-point showing en route to the Conn Smythe Trophy) in a single postseason run -- and that’s before the finals have even begun.

Instead, all eyes are on Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. How could they not be? McDavid has five goals and 31 points through 18 playoff appearances this year while Draisaitl has 10 goals and 28 points. To put that into context, no Panthers forward has reached the 20-point milestone yet.

Here’s another way to look at it: Imagine that Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were on the same team at some point in their career. Does that sound like an absurd comparison? It might not be as big of a leap as you think. The top two playoff performers of all time (min. 10 games) in terms of points per game are Gretzky (1.84) and Lemieux (1.61), but the next two after that are McDavid and Draisaitl at 1.58 and 1.57. Of course, the Edmonton superstars haven’t played the back half of their careers yet, which might drag down those averages, but still, it underscores just how special the Oilers duo has been, not just when it comes to collecting regular season accomplishments, but in their ability to step up in the playoffs.

Draisaitl’s contract runs through 2025 while McDavid’s will end in the summer of 2026. Perhaps they will end up as Oilers for life, but at a minimum, both of them, especially Draisaitl with his current cap hit of $8.5 million, will be due for a raise. This might be this duo's best chance to win a Cup together. Of course, the Panthers will be telling themselves a similar story. Making the finals once is a rarity that doesn’t happen in every career, but to get there twice in a row? They can’t afford to let this golden opportunity slip from their clutches a second time, no matter who their opponent is.

KEY MATCHUPS

Sergei Bobrovsky vs. Stuart Skinner

This series is a chance at redemption for Bobrovsky. He was critical to the Panthers’ run to the 2023 Stanley Cup Final, posting a 2.21 GAA and a .935 save percentage in 14 playoff games that year, but he couldn’t handle Vegas, posting a 4.70 GAA and an .844 save percentage in the five-game series. The Golden Knights scored at least five goals in three contests over that series, winning 5-2 in Game 1, 7-2 in Game 2 and 9-3 in Game 5. The Golden Knights had an amazing offense, but Bobrovsky’s assignment against Edmonton will arguably be even tougher, so the pressure is on.

It feels like the distant past now, but Bobrovsky was 2-0 while saving 64 of 68 shots against Edmonton during the 2023-24 regular season, so that bodes well.

Skinner didn’t draw an assignment against Florida during the 2023-24 campaign, though he was 2-0 while saving 65 of 70 shots versus the very similar 2023-24 Panthers. Of course, as noted above, it’s hard to know what you’re going to get from Skinner.

All things being equal, Bobrovsky and the Panthers should have the edge in this category. However, there’s also an argument to be made that this category represents an X-Factor for this series given the Panthers goaltender’s struggles during last year’s finals and Skinner’s overall unpredictability.

Sam Reinhart vs. Zach Hyman

Reinhart and Hyman finished second and third in the goal-scoring race with 57 and 54, respectively. They weren’t players many would have picked to be in the top three going into the campaign. After all, Hyman set a career high in 2022-23 with 36 markers and Reinhart’s previous best was 33.

I discussed above how Reinhart has slowed in the playoffs, but eight goals through 17 playoff contests is nothing to complain about, though it does pale in comparison to Hyman’s 14 markers through 18 postseason outings.

At this point, Hyman has an outside chance of matching the record of 19 goals in a single playoff run, which is a record shared by Reggie Leach (1975-76) and Jari Kurri (1984-85), but both Hyman and Reinhart have the ability to carry their team on any given night.

Kyle Okposo vs. Corey Perry

The elder statesmen in this series. Neither is expected to have a significant impact on the ice, but both of them could have influence in the locker room. Perry especially should bring a wealth of experience to the Oilers. He’s played in 209 career postseason contests, has won the Stanley Cup and is gearing up for his fifth career Stanley Cup Final, so a strong argument could be made that he’s the most knowledgeable active player when it comes to the finals.

Okposo is in some ways the polar opposite. He’s only participated in 35 career playoff outings given how much of his tenure has been spent on rebuilding teams between his stints with the Islanders and the Sabres. Still, the 36-year-old is a veteran presence and can be yet another source of motivation for the Panthers, who have an opportunity to win it for Okposo before his career potentially draws to a close.

Vladimir Tarasenko vs. Adam Henrique

Like Perry and Okposo, Tarasenko and Henrique were added by Florida and Edmonton, respectively, during the 2023-24 campaign, but rather being mostly cheerleaders, Tarasenko and Henrique are important secondary scorers.

Henrique figures to start the finals centering Edmonton’s third line and might chip in a bit in that role after collecting two goals and four points through 10 postseason contests this year. Having a responsible third-line center was a big need for the Oilers before acquiring Henrique. In theory, that’s a role Nugent-Hopkins can fill, but in practice, Edmonton prefers to have Nugent-Hopkins on the top unit alongside Hyman and McDavid.

Tarasenko is also likely to start the series on the third line. Like Henrique, he hasn’t been a major offensive force in the 2024 playoffs, but he has contributed an okay six points (three goals) across 17 appearances during Florida’s postseason run. Tarasenko won the Cup with St. Louis in 2019 and made a mark in that series with three goals and four points over seven games. The 32-year-old’s body has considerably more wear now, and he’s playing in a reduced role, but he still has the potential to come up clutch.

Matthew Tkachuk/Aleksander Barkov vs. Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl

This is a matchup Edmonton should win cleanly. The only question is how big the gap will be. As noted above, McDavid has surpassed the 30-point milestone in this year’s playoffs while no Florida player has reached the 20-point mark. Leon Draisaitl isn’t far behind with 10 goals and 28 points across 18 outings.

Florida will naturally attempt to limit McDavid and Draisaitl’s contributions, but many high-end defenses have tried and failed at that task. Having said that, Draisaitl’s a bit more of a question mark. He was somewhat of a mixed bag in the Western Conference Final, finishing with two goals and four points across six contests, so maybe he’s not quite at his best right now.

Either way, Tkachuk and Barkov don’t necessarily have to match Edmonton’s top two on offense for Florida to win this series, but the Panthers’ top forwards will still need to make major contributions. That’s especially true for Tkachuk. While Florida’s loss to Vegas in the 2023 Stanley Cup Final doesn’t rest solely on Tkachuk suffering a broken sternum in Game 3 of that series, it certainly had an impact. Provided he stays healthy, Tkachuk should be a major factor for the Panthers after recording five goals and 19 points through 17 playoff appearances this year.

X-FACTOR

Florida Panthers: One major weakness of the Panthers during the 2023 playoffs was their penalty kill, which finished at 70.4 percent. Florida has done far better in the 2024 postseason, successfully killing 88.2 percent of its penalties. However, the Panthers are in for their biggest test yet in Edmonton, which has a 37.3 power-play success rate in this playoff run. Four of Edmonton’s five goals over their final two wins in the Western Conference Finals were scored with the man advantage, so that’s something the Panthers will need to shut down in this series.

Edmonton Oilers: The biggest X-Factor for Edmonton is Skinner, but we’ve already discussed him at length, so instead I’ll highlight the Oilers’ need to finish strong. Edmonton has been outscored in the third period of playoff games 19-12, which is in contrast to the regular season when the Oilers’ best period was the third with them outscoring the competition 105-74. Finishing strong is something Florida has excelled at in the 2024 playoffs, with a 24-11 goal differential in their favor in that frame, so if those trends continue, we might end up seeing Edmonton coughing up leads late in this series.

PREDICTION

Making the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back years is an impressive, though not unheard of, accomplishment. But what about making it this far in consecutive years only to lose both times? The last team that suffered that fate were the Boston Bruins, who lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Montreal Canadiens in 1977 and 1978. Before that, it was the St. Louis Blues, who fell short of the title despite reaching the finals in three straight years from 1968-70.

The NHL was far smaller in the 60s and 70s, making such an occurrence at least more probable, but I think we might see it happen again, all the same.

I wouldn’t have picked Edmonton to win the Cup going into the year nor were the Oilers my choice to claim the title when the postseason began. In particular, I didn’t have faith in Skinner, and I questioned their depth, at least relative to a seemingly more rounded team like Dallas. However, Edmonton is here all the same. Skinner has sometimes bent under pressure, but not broken. Most importantly, the Oilers’ star players continue to deliver in the clutch, undeterred by hot goaltenders like Vancouver’s Arturs Silovs or elite netminders like Dallas’ Jake Oettinger.

Florida deserves a lot of credit too. The Panthers were able to comfortably best Tampa Bay, Boston and the Rangers. None of those were pushovers, and they show that Florida can tall against anyone, Edmonton included. Certainly, I wouldn’t be shocked by a Panthers championship.

Even still, I think the Oilers have the edge here. McDavid should shine, his supporting cast should do their job and if Skinner can at least stay serviceable, then I believe Edmonton will win the Cup in seven.