June 16th, 2024

McDavid says veteran Oilers built to handle ‘aggressive’ Panthers

By Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press on June 5, 2024.

Edmonton Oilers take part in practice before taking on the Florida Panthers in the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, in Edmonton, Wednesday, June 5, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON – The Edmonton Oilers know what to expect from the Florida Panthers. Lots of hits. Scrums after the whistle. A mix of skill and willpower.

But the Oilers say they’re not intimidated by the physical challenges posed by the Panthers. They’ll be ready to answer the bell when the Stanley Cup final begins Saturday night.

“Florida plays a fast game, in-your-face, aggressive,” said Oilers captain Connor McDavid, who leads the playoffs scoring race with 31 points. “I don’t think it changes anything.

“I would expect scrums and stuff like that. But we’re a veteran team, one of the older teams in the league. I don’t think that stuff bothers guys in here.”

Florida has made beating the beasts of the East look rather easy. They beat the New York Rangers in six games the Eastern Conference final, but the Blueshirts got both of their wins in overtime. At no time were the Rangers decisively better than the Panthers.

Before that, they beat the big, bad Boston Bruins at their own game – playing a nasty, physical brand of hockey in a six-game series win. Aleksander Barkov, arguably the best two-way forward in the game, neutralized Bruins star David Pastrnak. And Sam Bennett knocked Brad Marchand out of the series with a borderline, vicious hit.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, and all of that team’s Stanley Cup experience, were the Panthers’ first victim. Florida took out its state rival in five games.

The Dallas Stars, who the Oilers beat in the Western Conference final, are not as big and mean as the Panthers. But, the Oilers believe that their second-round series win over the Vancouver Canucks prepared them well for what Florida will bring.

The Oilers were down 3-2 to Vancouver, but came back to win in seven gruelling games. The Canucks were credited with 289 hits in the series, an average of more than 40 per night.

If the Oilers do lift the Cup, Edmonton fans could actually write thank-you notes to the Canucks for helping their team prep for the Panthers.

“We played a real physical team in Vancouver, as well,” said McDavid, “It’s the playoffs, it’s the finals. I would expect physicality no matter who we’re playing.”

“We can be a physical team, too,” added Leon Draisaitl, second in the NHL playoff scoring race with 28 points. “Obviously, we like to play with the puck, but we’re certainly not intimidated by physicality. We’ve handled it well in the Vancouver series, handled it well in the L.A. series (first round). Dallas was a little bit different. But we’re a good enough team, we’ve got enough guys to know how to play that type of way as well.

“We’ll be ready to go.”

It’s not just the physical nature of the Vancouver series that sets the Oilers up for Florida. It was also the hype around the all-Canadian series, where for two weeks the teams were front-page news across the country.

Oilers first-pairing defenceman Mattias Ekholm said the pressure of the Canucks series set his team up for the Cup.

“Playing Vancouver in the second series, with all that hype and all that pressure and all that stuff going on, whether it was here or in Vancouver, winning out of a series like that kind of calms everything down,” he said.

“I do think that series was like ‘OK, well this is pretty much as intense as it can get.'”

Of course, if there are scrums and late hits, the Oilers will welcome the power plays that come with them. Edmonton has been dominant on special teams, with a 37.3-per-cent success rate with the man advantage and a 93.9-per-cent penalty-killing rate.

The Panthers are at 23.3 per cent on the power play and 88.2 per cent on penalty kills.

Matchup to watch? Barkov has excelled both offensively and defensively in the post-season, with 17 points in 17 games. He’s been shutting down the opposition’s top offensive players. Now, we’ll likely see a lot of Barkov versus McDavid throughout the Cup final.

“We’ve played against a lot of good players through this run, a lot of good teams,” McDavid said. “Barkov is as good as it gets in terms of playing both ways. He’s a really, really solid player.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2024.

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