July 20th, 2024

Oilers looking to avoid Stanley Cup final sweep against well-drilled Panthers

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on June 14, 2024.

Florida Panthers players celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during second period Game 3 action of the NHL Stanley Cup final in Edmonton on Thursday, June 13, 2024.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON – Zach Hyman waited as the halo of reporters and cameras got into position.

Surrounded on all sides in the Edmonton Oilers’ media-filled locker room, the winger towed the company line.

Despite being down 3-0 in the Stanley Cup final to the suffocating and well-drilled Florida Panthers, his club has done a lot of good things in this series.

They’re right there. Ill-timed mistakes have cost them.

“It’s not like we’re going out there and getting absolutely dominated by a team that’s better than us,” said Hyman, who has combined to score 68 times in 2023-24, but has been held off the scoresheet in this series. “It’s moments in the game where they’ve shown a little bit more maturity than we have.”

The Oilers made a trio of crucial mistakes in a 4-3 loss in Game 3 that pushed them to the brink of elimination Saturday – the potential end to magical spring in Alberta’s capital.

A poor 2-on-1 read, a blunder behind Edmonton’s goal, an egregious giveaway in the defensive zone. Those mistakes all ended up in the back of Stuart Skinner’s net.

“This series is 3-0, but it doesn’t feel like a 3-0 series,” Hyman said following Friday’s practice. “It feels like for a lot of it, we’ve been controlling the game, and there are moments in the game where we’re giving freebies up.

“They’re not doing that.”

The Panthers are also not allowing the Oilers’ big guns to get going. Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has been outstanding with just four goals against on 86 shots, including a shutout in Game 1.

Hyman, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Evan Bouchard have no goals. The power play is 0 for 10. Florida has largely owned the middle of the ice and the blue lines, making zone exits and entries a challenge for a team that feasts off the rush.

“A very committed five-man effort out there against those guys,” Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk said of limiting the opposition’s high-flying attack. “As many offensive guys we have on the team, we’re a defence-first team.”

Edmonton head coach Kris Knoblauch said internal data suggests his group is getting more chances and allowing fewer opportunities against than in any other series this spring.

And yet, the Oilers are 60 minutes from hitting the golf course. Only one team in NHL history – the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs – has come back all the way back from a 3-0 deficit in a final.

Edmonton put up two eight-game winning streaks and went on 16-game run in the regular season, but are now 0-5 against the Panthers in 2023-24.

“Disappointed that we’re in this situation,” Knoblauch said. “We’ve got a lot to be optimistic about. We’ve gone on some quite astonishing rolls during the regular season.”

The Oilers, who are looking to force Game 5 on Tuesday back in South Florida, have dug themselves out of plenty of holes this season. There was the ugly 2-9-1 start, falling behind the Vancouver Canucks three times in the second round, and a 2-1 deficit against the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference final.

“People have counted us out the entire year, and the odds say that we won’t win,” Hyman said. “We play our best when our back’s against the wall.”

The task is tall. The door, however, hasn’t completely shut.

“You never know how many more opportunities you’re going to get,” said veteran winger Corey Perry. “For a lot of players, this could be it. This could be their one chance. I played with a lot of guys that never had this chance.

“When you get it, you hold onto it and you do everything you can to not let it go.”

Despite the dire situation, Hyman said the group has an unwavering belief.

“If there’s any team that could can do this, it’s this team,” he said. “There’s something about this team.

“We don’t give up.”

MAURICE’S MASTERY

Florida winger Kyle Okposo – acquired from the Buffalo Sabres ahead of the NHL trade deadline – has been impressed with how head coach Paul Maurice operates.

“He has a unique way of getting us prepared,” said the 36-year-old. “Sometimes he uses humour, sometimes he’s more demanding. He has a very good pulse on the team.”

WIDE-EYED TEAMMATE

Tkachuk grew up in the St. Louis area and spent a lot of time watching Vladimir Tarasenko with the Blues. Now they’re side-by-side, one victory from Florida’s first Cup.

“He was one of my favourite players,” Tkachuk said. “I’m sure my 12- or 15-year-old self would be completely star-struck.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2024.

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