Edmonton Oilers and Matthew Tkachuk brace for one last showdown

If anything could possibly make winning a Stanley Cup even sweeter for the Oilers and their long-suffering faithful, it would be winning it at the expense of Public Enemy No. 1

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So Edmonton’s road to a Stanley Cup leads through Matthew Tkachuk?

Perfect.

If anything could possibly make winning a Stanley Cup even sweeter for the Oilers and their long-suffering faithful, it would be winning it at the expense of Public Enemy No. 1.

Of course, you have to be careful what you wish for because Tkachuk and the powerful Florida Panthers are thinking the exact same thing about Connor McDavid and the Oilers. He would like nothing better than to know that his ring was bathed in Edmonton’s tears.

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This long and bitter feud is about to reach its zenith.

WE MEET AGAIN

Last time the Oilers saw Tkachuk in the post season was against Calgary two years ago and they didn’t really see him at all. The Turtle was a shell of himself in that series and Edmonton sat Calgary down in five easy games.

Up until Sunday’s win over Dallas that put Edmonton in its first Cup final since 2006, beating Calgary was the most satisfying playoff win in a very long time.

Matthew Tkachuk
Zack Kassian (44) of the Edmonton Oilers pummels Matthew Tkachuk (19) of the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on Jan. 11, 2020 in Calgary. Photo by Derek Leung /Getty Images, file

But the Florida Panthers are not the Calgary Flames. The Panthers are for real. If the Oilers thought Los Angeles, Vancouver and Dallas were tough, they are about to move up another weight class to face their toughest opponent yet.

BEAST IN THE EAST

The Panthers took the Tampa Bay Lighting out in five games, eliminated the playoff-hardened Boston Bruins in six and beat the President’s Trophy winning New York Rangers in six. And this will be their second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final, so they also have experience on their side, not to mention that burning sense of unfinished business.

They play a harder game than any opponent the Oilers have faced so far, they have more scoring depth than any opponent the Oilers have faced so far and they have better goaltending than any opponent the Oilers have have faced so far.

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They have seven players in double-digit scoring (Oilers have five), including two-time Selke winner Aleksander Barkov and they led the NHL in fewest goals against in the regular season.

Dallas was content to play a no hitter, Florida is not.

The Oilers are in for the fight of their lives. But they already know this, of course, because in two head-to-head meetings this season they were outscored 10-4 (5-3 and 5-1) and went 0-for-5 on the power play.

“They play a different style of game than these guys,” Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said after Edmonton sent Dallas packing. “They’re fast-paced, physical, good power play. We’ll take some time to look at them. We’ve only played them twice, probably not our two best games that we played all year was against them.”

BEST IN THE WEST

On the Oilers side of things, we’ve watched them transform from a mistake-prone team that relied on star power and the man advantage to a deep team that’s comfortable grinding out a 2-1 game.

Edmonton Oilers and Florida Panthers
Carter Verhaeghe #23 and Aaron Ekblad #5 of the Florida Panthers defend against Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers during the first period at Amerant Bank Arena on November 20, 2023 in Sunrise, Florida. Photo by Bruce Bennett /Getty Images

It’s time to quit underselling the fact that Edmonton posted the best record in the entire NHL and second best goals against since Jan. 1.

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Dallas was the third-highest scoring team in the NHL in the regular season and the Oilers held them to five goals through Games 4, 5 and 6. They clinched the series on a night they had just 10 shots on net. That didn’t happen because McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were doing twirls in the offensive zone (although McDavid’s twirl in the offensive zone to make it 1-0 on Sunday was pretty special).

“There were a lot of things said about this team, that our goaltending wasn’t good enough, we can’t win because we rely on scoring goals and need four or five every night, that we don’t check well enough, that we don’t have a good enough penalty kill,” said head coach Kris Knoblauch.

“There are many players in that room who’ve been told ‘You’re not good enough,’ but I beg to differ. They are.”

SPECIAL TEAMS

If Edmonton’s special teams keep going the way they have it could be a difference maker. The highest-ranked power play in the playoffs (37.3 per cent) might be able to keep Florida honest and the highest-ranked penalty kill in the playoffs (28-straight kills) might be able to cover up some of Edmonton’s own message sending.

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Florida is sixth on the power play (23.3 per cent) and second on the PK.

Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Florida Panthers
SUNRISE, FLORIDA – JUNE 01: Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Florida Panthers and Igor Shesterkin #31 of the New York Rangers come together during the second period in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amerant Bank Arena on June 01, 2024 in Sunrise, Florida. Photo by Bruce Bennett /Getty Images

IN GOAL

Sergei Bobrovsky has been lights out for the Panthers, holding their opponents to two or fewer goals in 10 of his last 11 starts.

Like Dallas, Florida is considered to have advantage in goal over Edmonton, but Skinner just clinched a series in which his team was outshot 34-10 in the deciding game and he just out-duelled Jake Oettinger. The edge here isn’t automatic.

INTANGIBLES

As far as intangibles go, both sides have every reason to believe they are ready to meet the moment. You don’t get this far without it being true.

The Panthers are back after losing in last year’s final and teams like that usually find a way to get it done the second time around.

The Oilers, meanwhile, are tempered metal after all they’ve been through this season and their ability to rise up in the face of adversity and win a game when they have to speaks for itself.

Edmonton Oilers' Zach Hyman (18)
Florida Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (72) is scored on by Edmonton Oilers’ Zach Hyman (18) during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday December 16, 2023. Photo by JASON FRANSON /THE CANADIAN PRESS

THE ULTIMATE WEAPON

There is no answer for McDavid. You can compare goalies, and defence pairings and depth and make arguments for how each team stacks up, but there is simply no team in the NHL that can say their top guy is in the same stratosphere as McDavid.

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If there is a deciding factor in this series, it might be one of the best players the sport has ever seen playing the best he’s ever played.

AND TKACHUK?

What role might he play in all this?

“He’s one player on a good team we’re trying to beat,” shrugged Nugent-Hopkins. “I don’t think we’re going to focus too much on him individually. It’s about everybody in this room from a man-on-man standpoint beating those guys.”

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