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Edmonton vs. Florida is a Stanley Cup Final of teams far apart in every way

Panthers have relied on defense, Oilers strong on offense

By STEPHEN WHYNO, AP Hockey Writer
Published: June 7, 2024, 5:09pm

SUNRISE, Fla. — By the time he was old enough to watch NHL games growing up in Sweden, Oliver Ekman-Larsson began dreaming about playing in the Stanley Cup Final.

Now he’s here, a member of the Florida Panthers in a series against the Edmonton Oilers that marks the furthest distance between two teams in a final in NHL history. That would not have mattered to that kid yearning to be in this spot.

“I would probably go back and forth to Sweden if I got a chance to play in the Stanley Cup Final,” he said.

OK, it’s not quite that far, but the 2,543 miles (4,092 kilometers) between the Panthers and Oilers home arenas eclipses the old record set by Vancouver and Boston in 2011 — a series that went the full seven games. Four years after that, the Oilers drafted Connor McDavid in the same home arena they’ll play Game 1 in Saturday night, a full-circle moment for the face of the sport.

“We spend a lot of time on that plane,” McDavid said. “We’re one of the most traveled in the league, so it’s only fitting that we’re going to play in the furthest Stanley Cup Final of all time.”

But this Cup final is not just one being played in opposite corners of North America. It’s a matchup of complete contrasts between a history-rich franchise in hockey-mad Canada looking for its sixth title and first since 1990 and another that did not even exist until 1993 and is now finally thriving underneath palm trees looking for the organization’s first championship.

“It’s pretty cool to be in Edmonton where it’s live-and-die hockey and then come down here where it’s a little different down here in South Florida,” Oilers winger Connor Brown said, also noting the play on the ice will be worth watching in either locale. “They play an in-your-face style of game and they pressure and they play on their toes, and so do we, so it’s going to make for some fun hockey.”

Hockey that is played as differently as the cities the teams represent. Feisty Florida bulldozed its way to the final by suffocating opponents with stifling pressure and stellar goaltending, while high-powered Edmonton has ridden McDavid, the three-time and reigning league MVP, and longtime running mate Leon Draisaitl on an offensive run that has included locking down and defending when it matters most.

“Both teams have it,” seasoned Oilers general manager Ken Holland said. “You don’t fluke this league. You need skill, and you need an engine and that engine of that group of players have got to drive your team on and off the ice.”

Again driving the Panthers are power forward Matthew Tkachuk, their leading scorer with 19 points, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who has allowed only 38 goals throughout this playoff run. They’re back in the final for a second consecutive year and are not only healthier than when they lost to Vegas and had to watch the Golden Knights hoist the Stanley Cup but more accustomed to the grind of getting to this point.

“We’re ready this year,” forward Sam Bennett said. “We have that bitter taste in our mouth still. Our mindset this year is completely different than last year. It was a little bit happy to be there, enjoying the experience. This year it’s all business. We have one goal in mind, and we’re not going to be satisfied until we accomplish that.”

Same goes for McDavid and Draisaitl, who have been playing together nearly a decade and had not reached the final until now.

“It’s a long time coming for all of us,” said Draisaitl, the German star whose 28 points in the playoffs trail only McDavid’s 31 among all scorers.

Some of that production has come on the power play, where the Oilers have converted on a postseason-best 37.3% of opportunities. The Panthers, who were whistled for 57 penalties through three rounds, have talked all week about the need to stay disciplined while also not abandoning the hard-nosed approach that has defined them.

“You have to find that fine line,” gritty winger Nick Cousins said. “We have to make sure that we’re physical and clean and getting in on the forecheck because that’s our DNA, that’s our style of game.”

The Oilers’ DNA also is not one-dimensional, as they got superb play in net from Stuart Skinner in the Western Conference final against Dallas and will be counting on more where that came from after a rough start to the playoffs and a history of miscues this time of year.

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Edmonton has also killed a franchise-record 28 consecutive penalties, “so they have all the confidence right now to be effective,” Florida defenseman Brandon Montour said.

Which team will be more effective in those aspects of the game — and playing the style it prefers — will determine who wins the series, which won’t be for the faint of heart.

“There’s going to be some more nastiness,” Oilers winger Evander Kane said. “Both teams have some passionate players on each side. I think there’s going to be some intangibles that guys have on both teams that are going to play out and maybe tip a team over in the right way and tip a team over in the wrong way.”