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TONY’S TAKE – 2024 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW

by Tony Fiorello

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 6, 2024: The Stanley Cup is staged for a visit by staff members of the Nevada Congressional Delegation at Capitol Hill on March 6, 2024 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by John McCreary/NHLI via Getty Images)


The 2024 Stanley Cup Final begins on Saturday night and – at least on paper – this year’s edition is shaping up to be a compelling matchup for multiple reasons.


The Florida Panthers, a team that has been among the better squads in the National Hockey League for the last few years, are winners of the Prince of Wales Trophy for the third time in their history and are in the Final for the second consecutive season. Thanks to series wins over the Tampa Bay Lightning (five games), Boston Bruins (six) and New York Rangers (six), Florida is also attempting to win the first championship in franchise history.


Meanwhile the Clarence Campbell Bowl-winning Edmonton Oilers are in the Final for the first time in 18 years and are aiming to take home the Cup for a sixth time, but their first since 1990. They got here by defeating the Los Angeles Kings in five games, beating the Vancouver Canucks in seven and knocking out the Dallas Stars in six, and appeared in the Western Conference Final for the second time in three years.


It doesn’t get much better than this. Here’s the scoop on each team going into Game One on Saturday night:

SUNRISE, FLORIDA - JUNE 1: NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly presents the Prince of Wales Trophy to the Florida Panthers after defeating the New York Rangers in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final at the Amerant Bank Arena on June 1, 2024 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)


EASTERN CONFERENCE

Florida Panthers (52-24-6, 110 points)

Florida is playoff-bound for the fifth straight year (the first time in franchise history that’s happened), and the appointment of the well-traveled Paul Maurice a year ago to replace the tandem of Andrew Brunette and future Hall of Famer Joel Quenneville has given the Panthers some much-needed guidance behind the bench. Maurice inherited a team bolstered at forward by Selke Trophy-winner Alex Barkov and gritty Matthew Tkachuk, supplemented by quality depth in Sam Reinhart – who had a career-high 57 goals – Carter Verhaeghe, Anton Lundell, Vladimir Tarasenko and Sam Bennett. Defensively the Panthers are held down by Aaron Ekblad, Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour. In goal the aging Sergei Bobrovsky has turned back the clock and was outstanding in the regular season with a 2.37 goals-against-average, a .915 save percentage and six shutouts.

EDMONTON, CANADA - JUNE 02: Members of the Edmonton Oilers pose with the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl after defeating the Dallas Stars in Game Six of the Western Conference Final of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on June 2, 2024, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)


WESTERN CONFERENCE

Edmonton Oilers (49-27-6, 104 points)

Edmonton continues to blossom in the Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl era, and the all-world duo (each had over 100 points again – McDavid became one of just five players ever with a 100-assist season) isn’t doing it alone. With Zach Hyman (who had a career-high 54 goals), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Evander Kane, Adam Henrique and Corey Perry in tow, the Oilers have good secondary scoring threats. The team is held down on the rear by defenders Darnell Nurse, Cody Ceci, Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm. Stuart Skinner and Calvin Pickard are solid in net for new head coach Kris Knoblauch, who took over behind the bench after a slow start to the season cost Jay Woodcroft his job.


STATS AND MUSINGS

·         According to Arda Ocal of ESPN, each team from the state of Florida have gotten to the Final as many times as Canadian teams have since 1993 (eight). They’ve also reached the Final five years in a row.

·         No Canadian team has won the Cup since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. The Great White North has gone 0-6 since then.

·         Six ex-Buffalo Sabres are on the two team’s rosters in this Final (Kane for Edmonton and Reinhart, Montour, Kyle Okposo, Evan Rodrigues and Dmitry Kulikov for Florida). Additionally, Panthers forward Steven Lorentz is the grandson of former Sabre Jim Lorentz.

·         2024 will mark the 43rd time in the last 44 seasons in which a teammate of future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr will play in the Final (Barkov and Ekblad were teammates of Jagr’s with the Panthers in 2016-17).

·         The Panthers will try to be the just the third team since 1984 – and just the sixth in the expansion era (1968) to win the Cup one year after losing in the Cup Final. The 1983-84 Oilers and 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins are the others to do so in the last 40 years.

·         Edmonton is tied with the San Jose Sharks for the second-best Game Seven winning percentage all-time (.667). Only the Lightning are better (.700).

·         This is the second straight year the Panthers have eliminated the Presidents Trophy winner from the playoffs one year after winning it themselves in 2021-22, and of the last 10 Presidents Trophy winners three of them have won the Cup in future years (Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay and Colorado Avalanche). Florida will try to become the fourth.

·         It is also the ninth consecutive year an Original Six team won’t win the Cup. According to Josh Dubow of the Associated Press, the previous such drought lasted six years (1980-85, 1987-92).

·         Tarasenko scored his second career series-winning goal to send his club to the Final (2019). The only skaters in league annals who have more such goals are Mike Bossy, Claude Provost and Maurice Richard, who each had three.

·         This year’s Final will be the first ever to feature each of the first four picks from the same draft class playing in at least one game for either team.

·         20 years ago, the last Final to be played before the 2004-05 year-long lockout featured the Lightning and Calgary Flames. 20 years later, their in-state/provincial rivals will face off.

·         According to Ocal, Maurice has become the 10th coach to take a team to consecutive Finals in his first two years with one team.

·         Perry has become the first player ever to play in the Final for five different franchises (Anaheim Ducks, Dallas, Montreal, Tampa Bay and now Edmonton).

·         The matchup between the Oilers will be the furthest distance in league history between two cities. According to ESPN Stats and Information, it’s a distance of 2,541 miles – the previous record-holder was the 2011 Final between Boston and Vancouver (2,499 miles).

·         Edmonton’s 10 shots on goal in their Game Six win over Dallas are the fewest in NHL history in a series-clinching game – the previous low was 17 by Boston when they defeated Washington in the 1990 Wales Conference Final. It’s also the worst shot differential by a winning team in a Conference Final clincher according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman – minus-25 (35-10, that previous low was minus-23 when the Nashville Predators were outshot by Anaheim in Game Six of the 2017 West Final 41-18).

·         The Oilers began the season 2-9-1 – according to Sportsnet Stats, their five points through 12 games are the fewest in such a span by a team that would reach the Final.

·         Bouchard has 27 points so far, the fifth-most by a defenseman in one postseason all-time. The other four ahead of him – Paul Coffey (37), Brian Leetch (34), Al MacInnis (31) and Cale Makar (29) – all won the Cup in the years they put up those numbers), is Bouchard next?

·         McDavid, Draisaitl and Bouchard have a combined 86 points this postseason, which is tied for the fourth-most ever among a trio of teammates in all games before a Final.

·         McDavid also has the most 100-point seasons of any NHL player (seven) before participating in his first Final. Draisaitl, on the other hand, is tied for the third-most with five.

·         The Oilers’ captain is also one of six players all-time to have recorded 30 or more points in a postseason multiple times, along with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Mario Lemieux and Nikita Kucherov.

·         Hyman was originally drafted by Florida in 2010, then after not signing with them was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’ll have a chance to get revenge against the Panthers this series.

·         Bobrovsky wasn’t nearly as busy in the playoffs as he was a year ago. In 2023 he needed to make more than 30 saves nine times, this year he’s only had to make 30 saves just once so far.

·         Overshadowed by their exceptional prowess on the power play, Edmonton’s penalty kill has been exceptional. They’ve killed off 93.9 percent of their shorthanded opportunities this postseason – according to Ocal, that’s the third-best penalty kill in playoff history (minimum of eight games, only the 2003-04 Detroit Red Wings and 2018-19 Stars were better with marks of 96 and 94.6 percent, respectively).

·         Just five NHL teams since 2000 have made coaching changes in-season before ultimately winning the Cup (New Jersey Devils in 2000, Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 and ’16, L.A. in 2012 and St. Louis Blues in 2019). Edmonton will look to do the same.

·         According to Freidman the worst opening-night loss by an eventual Cup champion was by the 2018-19 Blues, who lost 5-1 to the Winnipeg Jets. The Oilers lost their opener 8-1 to Vancouver, could that record be broken?

·         There is a 1,779 regular season game differential between Maurice and Knoblauch’s coaching careers – the most in NHL history for a Final matchup. The previous mark was 1,579 in the 2002 Final between Detroit’s Scotty Bowman and, ironically, Maurice, who was with the Carolina Hurricanes at the time.

·         Entering the Final, only Gretzky (1.84) and Lemieux (1.61) have averaged more points per playoff game all-time than McDavid (1.58) and Draisaitl (1.57).


PREDICTION

Panthers in six. While Edmonton may have the edge in pure offensive talent, Florida can one-up the Oilers in defensive depth, play in goal, coaching experience and Final experience. Those factors will lead to the Panthers winning their first Cup (and perhaps celebratory rats raining down on their players instead of confetti).

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