June 21st, 2024

Onward Oilers; Edmonton prepares for Stanley Cup final against Florida Panthers

By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press on June 3, 2024.

Edmonton Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner (74) is congratulated by head coach Kris Knoblauch after defeating the Dallas Stars in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs in Edmonton, Sunday, June 2, 2024.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

EDMONTON – The Edmonton Oilers are where they have long expected themselves to be, which is playing for the Stanley Cup.

The Oilers open the best-of-seven NHL championship Saturday night against the Florida Panthers at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Fla.

Edmonton makes its first Stanley Cup final appearance since 2006, when the Oilers lost in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes, and are four wins from hoisting Lord Stanley’s trophy above their heads 34 years after Edmonton’s last Cup win in 1990.

“This was always part of the plan. Always has been for this group,” captain Connor McDavid said.

The clock is ticking on the NHL’s most northern franchise to maximize in its lineup arguably the two best hockey players in the world before free agency. McDavid has two years remaining on his contract and Leon Draisaitl one when this season ends.

Edmonton’s dynamic duo has a combined 15 goals and 44 assists this post-season.

The Oilers were ousted by the eventual Stanley Cup champion the last two years – in six games in the second round by the Vegas Golden Knights in 2023, and in a 2022 Western Conference final sweep by the Colorado Avalanche.

“It’s been a bit of a bumpy road, whether it be off years or heartbreak in the playoffs or whatever it is,” McDavid said. “This was always part of the plan, to be in this moment. To put ourselves in this position was always a possibility and it feels good to have done that.”

The Cup final is new territory for Kris Knoblauch in his first season as an NHL head coach, as well as the majority of the Oilers including McDavid.

Corey Perry, 39, is the Oiler steeped in Cup final experience having played in four. He won in 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks.

Adam Henrique (2012, New Jersey Devils), Mattias Ekholm (2017, New Jersey), Mattias Janmark (2020, Dallas) and Brett Kulak (2021, Montreal) played in it, but didn’t win it.

They face a Panthers side that has reached the Cup final a second straight year, and one that knocked off the Presidents’ Trophy winner New York Rangers in six games to take the Eastern Conference.

If special teams and goaltending play an outsized role in playoff success, the Oilers are running hot in those departments.

Edmonton hasn’t given up a power-play goal its last 13 playoff games with 28 straight kills. After a quiet first four games in the conference final against the Dallas Stars, the NHL’s top power play resumed its efficient clip with four power-play goals on five chances over two wins to close out the conference final.

“Everybody’s got a piece of the pie here,” McDavid said. “Maybe for guys who aren’t on the power play, they’re on the penalty kill and those guys have done an unbelievable job of buying in and doing an amazing job on the kill. I’ve got a front-row seat to it. The kill has been so fun to watch.”

After he was pulled in Game 3 and sat out the next two games of Edmonton’s second-round win over Vancouver, Oilers goaltender Stuart Skinner has gone 6-2 with a .920 save percentage and a goals-against average of 1.81.

“It was a good time for me to kind of reset mentally and get some rest physically and just really remember what I’m here to do,” Skinner said. “After that break, being able to come back and have the games I was able to play and winning Game 7 in Vancouver, and bringing that momentum into the Dallas series, I think was just really massive for myself personally.”

Skinner has looked increasingly more comfortable since his benching, which culminated in a 34-save performance in Sunday’s 2-1 win over Dallas to close out the Western Conference final in Game 6, while his team mustered just 10 shots on the Stars’ net.

“We’re on a plane to Dallas if it wasn’t for Stu,” McDavid said.

Two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida’s net brings 80 games of playoff experience compared to Skinner’s 28.

The Panthers, who were beaten 4-1 by Vegas for last year’s Cup, can be just the third team in the expansion era to win it after losing the year before following the 1984 Oilers and the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Oilers bear the yearning for a Canadian NHL team to bring the Stanley Cup north of the U.S. border for the first time since the Montreal Canadiens won 31 years ago in 1993.

“There’s going to be pressure playing in the Stanley Cup final, no matter where your team’s from,” McDavid said. “We’re a Canadian team, we’ve got great Canadian fans, and it feels good to maybe unite the country a little bit and have something to bring people together.

“That’s what sports is all about is bringing people together and hopefully we’re doing that for Canadians across the country.”

Oilers forward Evander Kane played just nine shifts and four minutes 39 seconds in Sunday’s Game 6.

“It was injury related. Fortunately, we’ve got this week before we play on Saturday and we’re optimistic that he’ll be playing on Saturday,” Knoblauch said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2024.

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