Five Stanley Cup Final storylines to watch in Oilers vs. Panthers

Seven games, I don’t know her.

The Florida Panthers and Edmonton Oilers both trailed in their respective conference finals 2-1 after Game 3. But three straight wins apiece later, they’re set to face off in the Stanley Cup Final. And with this series comes several storylines to watch. 



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McDavid going to first Stanley Cup Final

Connor McDavid is a generational talent and after eliminating the Dallas Stars in six games, he gets to play on one of the biggest stages in hockey for the first time in his career: the Stanley Cup Final.

That isn’t just exciting for Oilers fans but all of the hockey world. McDavid is a sight to see every time he steps on the ice, and that has only been amplified in the playoffs. Just look at his level over the last few postseasons. In 2022, McDavid willed the Oilers through two rounds with a ridiculous 33 points in 16 games. Last year, he was again Edmonton’s backbone with 20 points in 12 games. 

This year, McDavid has built on his brilliance. His 31 points in 18 games scratch the surface of what a difference-maker he has been. After a strong Round 2 against the Vancouver Canucks, McDavid rose to an elite plus-38 Net Rating to stay atop the playoff field. His performance against Dallas has only added to that – just take his electric Game 6 to help clinch the series. 

Maybe the most exciting part of McDavid reaching the final is the timing. This isn’t an example of an aging star arriving here in the latter stage of their career. Prime McDavid (and Leon Draisaitl) now has a chance to hoist the Stanley Cup.



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Panthers are back and a lot less broken

Florida was the underdog of last year’s postseason, starting with a Round 1 meeting against a historic Boston Bruins team. But after rallying from a 3-1 deficit to win in seven games, the Panthers took the 2023 playoffs by storm with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. 

Four rounds of playoff hockey takes a toll on most teams, and the Panthers felt the pain of that by the time they reached the final. Brandon Montour, Sam Bennett, Radko Gudas and Eetu Luostarinen were among the walking wounded. Aaron Ekblad suffered through a broken foot, shoulder dislocations and a torn oblique. And Matthew Tkachuk broke his sternum against Vegas. 

The Panthers likely don’t have a clean bill of health — no team does at this time of year. But Florida isn’t limping into the final like last year, which should make for a better-quality series. There is a lot of injury luck involved, but the Panthers’ balanced approach seems to be helping as well. Florida didn’t have to over-leverage its best to get to this point, leaving their team with a little steam for the most important series of the year. 

Will Oilers’ defense and goaltending implode?

The Oilers have clear strengths: an offense led by two of the best skaters in the world, supported by high-end complementary forwards like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman. 

But Edmonton also has some clear weaknesses on the back end that have haunted them during the regular season and playoffs. 

At times this postseason, the decision not to acquire another defenseman has hurt the Oilers because there are only so many adjustments available to them. Cody Ceci and Darnell Nurse’s glaring struggles seemed like the weak link that could hold Edmonton back. The same is true with Stuart Skinner in net, whose instabilities cost the Oilers a few games. 

The Oilers are going to the final thanks to some key adjustments on the back end. Kris Knoblauch and Paul Coffey’s tweaks helped Edmonton tighten up against the Stars in the second half of the series. And Skinner has stood tall and looked more confident in net with two quality starts to close out Round 3. If both can hold up, Edmonton has a real chance against Florida. 

The problem is that the defense and goaltending haven’t earned that trust just yet, leaving this as one threat looming over the Oilers against a high-octane team like the Panthers. 

Forsling vs. Edmonton’s stars

Round after round, the Panthers have leaned on Gustav Forsling to shut down their opponents’ best. 

In Round 1, that meant a steady dose of Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov. The Panthers earned 53 percent of the expected goal share in their 48 head-to-head five-on-five minutes but were outscored 2-1.

In Round 2, Forsling was served a matchup against Boston’s David Pastrnak. In over 52 minutes of shared ice, Florida stayed above break-even with 51 percent of the expected goals and a 3-2 edge in scoring. 

Then in Round 3, Forsling primarily matched up with Mika Zibanejad. The New York Rangers didn’t muster much in those minutes, with zero goals. Florida, on the other hand, scored twice while earning an almost 69 percent expected goals rate. 

Forsling has emerged as one of the best shutdown defensemen in the league, which likely earned him some votes for the Norris Trophy. And now it could gain him some Conn Smythe buzz depending on how this next series goes. 

The Stanley Cup Final will be his biggest task yet, with matchup minutes against the likes of McDavid, Draisaitl and Hyman ahead. How Forsling contains Edmonton’s best will be a pivotal storyline to watch.

What happens if the Oilers’ power play gets shut down?

The Oilers are dynamite on the power play. This postseason, it’s clicking at a league-high 37.3 percent with 19 goals scored on 51 opportunities. 

But what happens if Edmonton gets shut down on the advantage?

The Panthers boast a stout penalty kill. It’s been a strength all season, even when they were missing key cogs to open the season. And now through three rounds, Florida has maintained its edge while short-handed, even in Round 3 against the Rangers’ dangerous unit. 

The Panthers’ penalty kill is operating at 88 percent, which is second to only the Oilers. Florida’s short-handed approach isn’t only a result of strong goaltending but solid play in front of the blue paint. The Panthers limit their opponents’ shot and scoring chance creation and force their opponents to play defense against short-handed looks. 

If these teams neutralize each other in the special-teams battle, it will put a lot more emphasis on five-on-five play. Edmonton controlled play in crucial parts of Round 3 against Dallas, with about 60 percent of the expected goals share in both Games 4 and 5.

Now how will that match up to the Panthers’ balanced approach?

— Data via Natural Stat Trick and Evolving Hockey

(Photo of Connor McDavid and Anton Lundell: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Shayna Goldman

Shayna Goldman is a staff writer for The Athletic who focuses on blending data-driven analysis and video to dive deeper into hockey. She covers fantasy hockey and national stories that affect the entire NHL. She is the co-creator of and 1/3 of the Too Many Men podcast. Her work has also appeared at Sportsnet, HockeyGraphs and McKeen’s Hockey. She has a Master of Science in sports business from New York University. Follow Shayna on Twitter @hayyyshayyy

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