Stanley Cup Final preview: Players to watch, goalie confidence levels, top trends


From a regular-season batch of 32 teams, to a Stanley Cup playoff field of 16, and now down to two, the NHL’s champion is close to being crowned for 2024.

A year after losing in the Stanley Cup Final to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Florida Panthers are out to finish their story and raise the Cup for the first time in franchise history.

For the Edmonton Oilers, a Stanley Cup would silence all the “yeah, but” conversations regarding superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and etch their names among the franchise greats from five prior Cup teams.

Game 1 is Saturday, June 8 (8 p.m. ET, ABC and ESPN+). Here’s everything you need to know about both teams, from key players to watch, goaltender confidence ratings, and the top trends for each team coming out of the conference finals.

fla

Stanley Cup wins: None
How they got here: Defeated Lightning 4-1, Bruins 4-2, Rangers 4-2

Goalie confidence rating: 9 out of 10

Sergei Bobrovsky has been rock solid for the Panthers throughout these playoffs. Granted, the team’s excellent defensive play has aided Bobrovsky. But the veteran’s steady stream of quality performances gives Florida undeniable confidence Bobrovsky will be there to make the big saves.

He has earned a 12-5 record in the postseason, with a .908 save percentage and 2.20 goals-against average. The only playoff starter who has averaged fewer goals against per game than Bobrovsky was Boston’s Jeremy Swayman (and Bobrovsky ultimately won that battle when Florida sent the Bruins packing in their second-round series).

Bobrovsky had to be the Panthers’ hero during last season’s run to the Cup Final, and it wore him down in the end. This year’s workload has been more manageable, and that should set Bobrovsky up for continued success.

What the Eastern Conference finals taught us about the Panthers

Florida is the total package. The Panthers have star power, scoring depth, elite defensive habits, a top-tier goaltender and — perhaps most crucial of all — innate killer instinct.

The team was exceptional in the third period against the New York Rangers down the stretch of their series, winning the final three games by a one-goal margin. The Panthers also shut the Rangers down at 5-on-5 in that span, allowing just one even-strength goal while simultaneously rendering New York’s once-vaunted power play completely ineffective with a stifling penalty kill. And the way Florida held the Rangers’ elite scorers from producing — Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad combined for a single goal through six games — was a byproduct of the Panthers’ full-team buy-in on defense.

At the same time, Florida can be deadly off the rush while equally strong suppressing those chances from going the other way. Their ability to make New York pay for mistakes was another backbreaker for the Rangers, who couldn’t find the same opportunities to do damage. Florida rarely offers quality looks, and Bobrovsky stood tall against the most glaring breakdowns.

Players who will be key to the Cup Final

One of Florida’s strengths may be its defense in a collective sense. But the Panthers’ defensemen will certainly be in the spotlight when the likes of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Zach Hyman try to get rolling.

Gustav Forsling has had a brilliant postseason going up against some of the toughest opposing matchups, and he has also contributed offensively (four goals and 11 points). Brandon Montour’s physicality and active stick breaking up rush chances has been invaluable. Florida defends well and is aggressive in holding shooters to the outside and limiting action from the slot.

That will be critical in preventing the Oilers from running wild. Aaron Ekblad should also play a key role in steadying Florida from the back end — and this year he won’t be playing in the Cup Final with a broken foot. That’s a definite improvement.

Player who needs to step up

Carter Verhaeghe was a force for Florida early in the postseason. His production has been dwindling, though. Verhaeghe popped in five goals in five games against Tampa Bay, but he has just four goals total since then. He put only two shots on net in the final two games of the conference finals and wasn’t nearly as visible for the Panthers in creating opportunities around the net (although Igor Shesterkin did make a notable save on Verhaeghe in Game 6).

All of that is to say, Verhaeghe needs to recapture his first-series form in the Cup Final. There will be a laundry list of capable scorers across the ice — and some obviously elite talents, too — and the Panthers can’t afford any passengers in their group. Verhaeghe can absolutely be a difference-maker for Florida and drive its offense. Now is the time for him to shift gears.

Is there a coaching edge for the Panthers?

The Cup Final will feature two head coaches at opposite ends of the NHL spectrum. Florida coach Paul Maurice has been in the league for two decades, and he has now reached three Cup Finals (two with Florida). Edmonton’s Kris Knoblauch hasn’t even coached an entire NHL season yet, having replaced Jay Woodcroft in November as his first gig in the league. Will experience be a factor for either side?

The Oilers have responded well to Knoblauch, and their on-ice success since he took over is abundantly clear. But when evenly matched opponents like Florida and Edmonton clash, there is generally an X factor that emerges to separate the sides, something more intangible. Things such as a critical line change, or knowing when to take a timeout, or being able to read the demeanor of your team and adjust accordingly. All of that will be heightened given the stakes in the Cup Final.

We’ve already seen in the playoffs how well-timed coaching decisions have helped secure wins in tight contests. The margins for error in this series will be slim. The edge could lie not with who is sitting on the bench, but standing behind it.


edm

Stanley Cup wins: 1990, 1988, 1987, 1985, 1984
How they got here: Defeated Kings 4-1, Canucks 4-3, Stars 4-2

Goalie confidence rating: 9 out of 10

There were certainly questions about Stuart Skinner earlier this postseason. But how he has performed since Game 6 of the second round has only added to what makes the Oilers such a problem in the defensive zone. They enter the Stanley Cup Final allowing just 25.1 shots per game, the third-fewest among 2024 playoff teams.

With a penalty kill that held the Dallas Stars to zero goals through the conference finals, the Oilers have one of the strongest defensive identities in the league.

Complementing that with a consistent version of Skinner — who had a 1.95 goals-against average against the Stars — only adds to the argument that the Oilers might be the most complete team in the playoffs.

What the Western Conference finals taught us about the Oilers

That anyone who still believes this team is just Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid has not been paying attention. The path they took to beat the Stars in the Western Conference finals is proof.

In the Oilers’ victories in Games 4 and 5, they received key goals from players such as Mattias Janmark, Ryan McLeod, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Philip Broberg. Their penalty kill was perfect against the Stars, including going 3-for-3 in the pivotal Game 6.

They’ve developed a two-way identity that has allowed them to play comfortably in one-goal games, including the closeout in Game 6. They’ve made goal prevention a serious component to their success, and it has only added to the looming threat that the Oilers could break out to score more than four goals in a game as well.

A team that has been billed as an offensive juggernaut has shown it can be the complete package.

Players who will be key to the Cup Final

The Oilers have Draisaitl and McDavid, a pair of elite forwards who have four Hart Trophies between them. But again, they are more than that.

Zach Hyman has given them a forechecking winger who can control the net front. They have a puck-moving defenseman in Evan Bouchard who, along with Mattias Ekholm, gives the Oilers a trusted top pairing.

This postseason has elevated Nugent-Hopkins’ profile as a two-way player because of what he has able to do at 5-on-5, on the penalty kill and on the power play; he could be their most important forward not named Draisaitl or McDavid.

There’s also what Darnell Nurse accomplished against Dallas, going from a figure under scrutiny to being one of the Oilers’ most consistent players to close out the series. That includes logging more than 21 minutes with three hits while not being on the ice for a goal against in Game 6. That version of Nurse would be instrumental in helping capture the franchise’s first title since 1990.

Player who needs to step up

Evander Kane. At his best, Kane is a physical power forward who can cause problems in the slot and at the net front, with a shot that can also make him dangerous on the perimeter. That has made him one of the NHL’s most consistent goal scorers over his career, with a run of nine seasons with more than 20.

It’s also what makes his recent scoring drought (six straight games, going back to Game 7 of the second round against the Vancouver Canucks) so puzzling.

Kane opened the conference finals with nine shots in his first two games, only to then record four shots combined in Games 3, 4 and 5. He was moved down from the second line to the third line as a result in Game 5, resulting in a significant decline in his work rate compared to his first two postseasons with the Oilers.

It’s possible that Kane could be on the mend going into the Stanley Cup Final. After delivering a check early in Game 6, he skated to the bench and logged only 4:39 of ice time via nine shifts.

Hiring Kris Knoblauch could be the latest move in a certain trend

Moving on from Jay Woodcroft and hiring Kris Knoblauch not only saved the Oilers’ season, but allowed them to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in nearly two decades. Whether the Oilers win the Cup or not, the move raises a debate about the expectations for an NHL coach in his first season with a new team.

This trend started in 2019, when Craig Berube, who had 161 games of NHL head-coaching experience, was made the interim coach of the St. Louis Blues … and won the Stanley Cup in what was his first of five-plus seasons with the club.

A year later, veteran coach Rick Bowness was an interim who guided the Dallas Stars to the Cup Final.

In 2021, Dominique Ducharme, an interim coach with no previous NHL head-coaching experience, guided the Montreal Canadiens to a Cup Final.

Last year saw Bruce Cassidy, who had 500-plus games of experience, win a title in his first campaign with the Vegas Golden Knights.

It’s a trend that continues with Knoblauch, whose head-coaching roles had previously been in the AHL and junior hockey. Knoblauch has the chance to be the first coach since Dan Bylsma in 2009 to win the title in his first year behind an NHL bench.



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