HOCKEY 101: A beginner's guide to the Stanley Cup Final for Oilers fans

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There are hockey diehards, and then there are the rest of us.

Living in Canada, it’s almost assumed a baby should come out of the womb already knowing inherent facts like Wayne Gretzky has more career assists than the next guy behind him on the all-time leaderboard has points.

But let’s face it, hockey just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And that’s not the easiest thing to admit at this time of year. After all, the Stanley Cup Finals are upon us, and it’s tough not to get caught up in at least some of the excitement.

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Should you find yourself in this group, don’t fret. We are here to help you get by the awkward elevator ride next to the boss who wears his Oilers jersey — at least, you think it might be a jersey, but it definitely has the word Oilers on it — or the gathering at the water cooler in the office or at the gym, or whatever situation you find yourself in over the next little while.

It’s probably a good idea to arm yourself with an arsenal in reserve of just enough small talk to look like you’ve been paying attention. OK, maybe not for the entire year (Just an FYI: the Edmonton Oilers were bad — really, really bad — back in the beginning), but at least long enough to not sound like a complete noob. And who knows? Maybe you can even join in on a little bit of the conversation or, at the very least, toss out a zinger on your way past the boss’s door.

So, as long as you know who Wayne Gretzky is — if not, Google is your friend, and that’s a great one as far as a place to start — here is a little lowdown on what’s going on as the curtain sets to open on the NHL’s grandest stage this weekend:

THE CUP CONTENDERS

North America’s oldest existing championship trophy was first given out in 1893 … blah, blah, blah.

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Look, unless you’re a complete nerd, you don’t want or need to know the history or how it was first commissioned by an early Governor General, or what a Governor General even is, for that matter.

What you need to know is who is playing for it this time.

The Edmonton Oilers (Record: 49-27-6, 104 points, second in the Pacific Division) defeated the Los Angeles Kings 4-1, the Vancouver Canucks 4-3 and the Dallas Stars 4-2 in best-of-seven series to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the eighth time, having won five of them so far (1984, ’85, ’87, ’88, ’90), having last appeared in the 2006 final.

The Florida Panthers (Record: 52-24-6, 110 points, first in the Atlantic Division) got past the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1, the Boston Bruins 4-2 and the New York Rangers 4-2.

The Panthers entered the league in 1993, which also happens to be the last time a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup (the Montreal Canadiens defeated Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings), and have appeared in two previous Stanley Cup Finals (1996, 2023). Last year, the Panthers lost 4-1 to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Both the Oilers and the Panthers had to come back from falling behind 2-1 in the conference final round to make it this far, so this meeting wasn’t exactly foretold in any prophecy.

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Florida whipped the Oilers by sweeping both games of the season series by a combined 10-4 goal differential, racking up five goals on both occasions. But that was earlier on in the year, before Edmonton went on a 16-game winning streak to jump back into the playoff picture. It was a marked improvement over the 3-9-1 start the Oilers flopped their way out of the gates prior to undergoing a drastic midseason change in head coach. Oh, and it’s probably a good idea not to bring up the name Jay Woodcroft …

WHO TO WATCH

Oilers

Connor McDavid is not just the poster boy for this team, but the entire NHL. Oh, that stands for National Hockey League, just in case. And he’s good. Real good. He’s been called the best player in the world, and not just by people here in Edmonton, either.

And so far in these playoffs, he’s lived up to the hype as he leads the way with 31 playoff points (five goals, 26 assists) in 18 games. He’s one of four Oilers occupying the top four spots on that list, followed by Leon Draisaitl’s 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists), Evan Bouchard — whom we should point out is a defenceman — and his 27 points (six goals, 21 assists) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’s 20 points (six goals, 14 assists). On top of that, Zach Hyman has a league-leading 14 goals in 18 playoff games.

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If you are looking for a bigger indication of superstar talent in Edmonton’s offence, you aren’t going to find any.

McDavid is making his first appearance in the final round since joining the Oilers as the first-overall draft pick in 2015. Last year, he led the league in goals, assists and points, but this year was notable because he became just the fourth player in history to reach the 100-assist mark in the regular season.

He is the odds-on favourite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. (That stands for most valuable player — kind of a big deal). Highlight-reel goaltending machine Bill Ranford was the last Oilers player to win in (1990).

Panthers

One name, Matthew Tkachuk. And know this: You don’t like him. He previously played for the provincial rival Calgary Flames and is Public Enemy No. 1 in the Alberta capital for his, shall we say, abrasiveness on the ice, which is then immediately followed up with running and hiding behind the skirts of some teammates.

If no skirts are close by, Tkachuk has been known to retreat into his imaginary shell when faced with a bigger, stronger opponent. Scratch that, former Oilers forward Zack Kassian was no bigger, but easily stronger whenever he had an infamous run-in (followed by a rematch) in 2020 with Tkachuk, who folded like a cheap chair.

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But the rest of Florida’s roster is much, much tougher and will be the biggest physical test the Oilers will face in these playoffs. (Yes, fighting is actually allowed in the NHL … kind of).

And they’re not just rough and tough. It takes skill to make it this far, and captain Aleksander Barkov has it at both ends of the ice, winning his second career Selke trophy as the league’s top defensive forward. Sam Reinhart finished the season second overall in goals with 57, ahead of Hyman’s 54, while Sam Bennett likes to make opponents hit the ice as much as he does pucks hit the back of their net.

BIGGEST STRENGTH

Oilers

Edmonton’s special-teams play (that means power play and penalty kill, when someone goes to the box for an infraction of the rules) is something to behold. The Oilers power play leads the way in the playoffs, scoring on 37.3 per cent of its opportunities, while its penalty kill has been perfect over the past 10 games (going back to Round 2), and is 93.9 per cent in the playoffs.

The Panthers are no slouch in this department, coming in just behind the Oilers with a second-ranked penalty kill (88.2 per cent), while their power play is sixth in the post-season (23.3 per cent).

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A good rule of thumb is to add up a team’s power play and penalty kill numbers, anything over 100 is considered good. Both of the Stanley Cup finalists have excellent special teams, but the edge easily goes to Edmonton.

Panthers

Speaking of edge, they don’t get much sharper than Goalie Bob.

The Panthers are tied for second overall in these playoffs with a goals-against average of 2.29, thanks to the efforts of netminder Sergei Bobrovsky. (Edmonton is seventh at 2.61).

While Stuart Skinner played lights out for the Edmonton Oilers as they won three games in a row to get past the Dallas Stars, it turned out he was just keeping pace with Bobrovsky, who did the same against the Presidents’ trophy-winning (for best record in the regular season) New York Rangers.

While that’s high praise for Skinner, who is in his second NHL season, Bobrovsky is a veteran of 14 NHL seasons.

While their numbers aren’t that far off (Bobrovsky is 12-5 with a 2.20 goals-against average and .908 save percentage, compared to Skinner’s 11-5 record, 2.50 goals-against average and .897 save percentage), the margins for error grow smaller as the playoffs progress and every single save can mean the difference in the game.

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Advantage: Panthers.

HOW TO WATCH

By virtue of a better record in the regular season, the Panthers hold home-ice advantage heading into the series, meaning more chances to win at home in front of a friendly crowd, as well as having what’s called last change, which is a lineup thing that helps coaches get the player matchups they want on the ice. Unless you can afford tickets to the game (resale value for Game 4 in Edmonton has reached as high as $4,000 Cdn), a flight to Florida or lucked out and are getting into a viewing party in Ice District, here is how you are going to be keeping an eye on the playoff proceedings:

Game 1, Saturday, June 8

Oilers at Florida, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, CBC, Sportsnet, TVAS)

Game 2, Monday, June 10

Oilers at Florida, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, CBC, Sportsnet, TVAS)

Game 3, Thursday, June 13

Panthers at Edmonton, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, CBC, Sportsnet, TVAS)

Game 4, Saturday, June 15

Panthers at Edmonton, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, CBC, Sportsnet, TVAS)

And if necessary:

Game 5 at Florida — Tuesday, June 18, 8 p.m. ET

Game 6 at Edmonton — Friday, June 21, 8 p.m. ET

Game 7 at Florida — Monday, June 24, 8 p.m. ET

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge

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