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Oilers, Panthers set to clash in Stanley Cup final

Edmonton is also carrying the weight of Canada’s collective Cup drought
Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid answers questions during Media Day for the Stanley Cup Finals, Friday, June 7, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. The Oilers take on the Florida Panthers in Game 1 on Saturday in Sunrise. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Connor McDavid was in the midst of a hockey nightmare.

The superstar captain’s Edmonton Oilers — among the Stanley Cup favourites in training camp — had just suffered another demoralizing loss.

The last-place, torn-down-to-the-studs San Jose Sharks were celebrating a 3-2 victory down the hall that brought the rebuilding club even on points with McDavid’s confused and frustrated group.

Edmonton was in a tailspin. It was Nov. 9, 2023. There were a boatload of questions and few, if any, answers.

Seven months later, McDavid and his teammates — somehow — sit four wins from the Stanley Cup.

The Oilers open the title series Saturday against the Florida Panthers at Amerant Arena, the culmination of a roller-coaster campaign that was nearly lost a month into the schedule.

“Our group always believed that we were a good team,” McDavid said Friday. “Even when things weren’t going well, I think we always believed that if we just stuck with things we were going to turn it around.

“When you’re going through it, obviously it sucks and it doesn’t feel like that. But our group came together.”

The Oilers are looking to win their sixth Cup — and first since 1990 — after last making the championship showdown in 2006 when they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games.

“It’s exciting,” Edmonton winger Zach Hyman said. “You’re very close to your dream, but at the same time, you’re far away. You have to win a series against a really good team.”

The Panthers — a league backwater for more than two decades — are making their second consecutive appearance in the final after falling to the Vegas Golden Knights 4-1 a year ago. Florida’s only other four-round spring came in 1996 when the Colorado Avalanche secured their first Cup.

“It’s kind of like a Christmas Eve feeling right now,” Florida winger Matthew Tkachuk said. “It’s been a long week trying to keep your mind off it as much as possible, and just enjoy the warm weather outside as much as you can, but it’s hard not to think about Game 1.”

A matchup that features the furthest distance between cities in the final in league history at 4,089 kilometres, the series will be one of contrasts.

Committed to defence more so than ever before in the McDavid and Leon Draisaitl era, the Oilers have a high-flying offence that downed the Los Angeles Kings in the first round before having to come back from series deficits to defeat the Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars for the Western Conference crown.

That attack includes the first four names in post-season scoring with McDavid, Draisaitl, Evan Bouchard and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins topping the list, along with Hyman, who leads in goals.

It took a while for the Oilers to figure things out.

“You’re not going to go through the playoffs and win 16 games winning 5-0 every game,” Draisailt said. “We were young kids coming in and the weight of the world on our shoulders, it felt like. Everyone expected us to do everything. We weren’t ready to understand what it really takes to win. When you’re 19, 20, 21 years old, that’s just a fact.

“Sometimes it takes a little longer.”

The Panthers, meanwhile, are a tough, four-line juggernaut built from Sergei Bobrovsky’s net out that rolled through the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins before dispatching the Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers.

Tkachuk, who is familiar to Edmonton fans from his six seasons with the Calgary Flames, and captain Aleksander Barkov pace a balanced attack.

Florida head coach Paul Maurice will take part in his third final still in search of a first Cup. His opposite, rookie bench boss Kris Knoblauch, took over in November with Edmonton sitting 31st in the standings at 3-9-1.

The Oilers’ special teams are a big reason they’re four victories from sipping from the silver mug. A lethal power play came through late against the Stars, while a middle-of-the-pack penalty kill in the regular season hasn’t allowed a goal in its last 28 short-handed chances — a stretch of 10 games.

“They’re a great team,” Tkachuk said. “Got to watch some of their games against Dallas. They played really well and ultimately deserved to win the West.

“It should make for a great final.”

Edmonton is also carrying the weight of Canada’s collective Cup drought, which stands at 30 years since the Montreal Canadiens last raised the glistening trophy in 1993. The Canucks (twice), Oilers and Calgary Flames have all lost the final in seven games in the years since, while the Ottawa Senators and Canadiens also got agonizingly close.

McDavid and his group felt about as far away from this moment as the journey from Edmonton to South Florida back in November.

Now they can almost taste it.

“It’s been good for our group to have gone through that,” McDavid said. “You find out what your group’s made. We showed that we can go through adversity together and stick together.

“And come out the other side.”

The final climb towards hockey immortality begins Saturday.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press