The only thing missing in Oilers-Panthers final is Kassian-Tkachuk

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There isn’t much that could make Edmonton Oilers fans happier than seeing their team hoist a long-awaited Stanley Cup later this month.

Except, of course, if they did it after somehow reinstating ex-Oilers winger Zack Kassian back into the lineup in time for the Stanley Cup Final series against Matthew Tkachuk and the Florida Panthers.

You remember Tkachuk, of course. Formerly of the rival Calgary Flames, he vilified himself among the Oilers faithful even beyond the usual Battle of Alberta bounds with his all-bark, no-bite on-ice provocations, culminating in a “fight” — using full quotation marks — with Kassian, who wasted no time turning his Calgary counterpart into an infamous turtle.

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“We expect the same guy, yeah,” said Oilers captain Connor McDavid. “I would expect the same guy. He’s a great player, smart, effective. Understands, I guess, the gamesmanship side of the game and he’s good at it.”

Oh, what a juicy rematch it could have been.

While the Oilers no longer have Kassian — who was last seen coming out of retirement in January to join HC Sparta Praha of the Czech Extraliga — Tkachuk comes into the series leading the Panthers with 19 points (five goals, 14 assists) in 17 playoff games, after earning 88 points (26 goals, 62 assists) in 80 regular-season games.

While the Florida forward isn’t known for backing up his actions with any sort of substance, the Panthers, as a team, are expected to represent a much more physical force for the Oilers to face than they had in the last series against a squeaky clean Dallas Stars squad.

“Lots has been talked about, about their physicality and the way they play and stuff like that,” McDavid said of his upcoming foes. “If they’re going to take penalties and stuff like that, our power play is good at what we do. I would expect scrums and stuff like that.”

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“We’re a veteran team, one of the older teams in the league. I don’t think that stuff bothers the guys in here.”

But it could be a different story when it comes to the biggest bother on the Panthers roster, No. 19.

“I’m not too sure what to expect,” Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner said of Tkachuk. “That’s totally up to him, how he’s going to bring his game. So, we’ll see.

“But I know that he’s obviously a skilled player, he gets the puck to the net. He can fight, he can grind, he can hit corners, he’s obviously a leader on their team.”

If that sounds like high praise for an unworthy opponent, just wait …

“He’s a special player to watch, he’s a great player, a player I would say everybody in here respects,” Skinner continued from inside the Oilers dressing room following Wednesday’s practice. “I think we respect everyone on that team. They’re obviously an incredible team.

“So, it’s just another one of those things where it’s very exciting to get to play.”

Skinner’s comments came with a caveat, however.

“I’m going to be super honest,” he said. “When you guys ask questions about players, I’m not a player.”

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While many of the questions to the Oilers prior to heading into Florida this weekend seem to focus on facing a new team in the next round, such as who the Panthers have and what they bring to the title table, it can’t be overlooked that they, themselves, are also a different looking team than the one that first squared off against the Los Angeles Kings three rounds ago.

A vastly improved one, at that.

“I totally agree with that, I think we are a much better team,” Skinner said. “In those moments, we’ve been able to play a lot of games since Game 1 against the Kings and I think the more games you play, especially playoff hockey, you’ve got more of a rhythm leading up to basically everything that we’re doing, which is power play, (penalty kill), 5-on-5, our defensive zone, obviously neutral zone and O-zone. You know, a lot of things we’re doing really well.

“I feel like we’re just a very connected team, and I think that’s going to be really important playing against another team that’s very connected, as well.”

But what was the turning point where everything began coming together?

“I think it’s just a whole process,” Skinner said. “Going through the different situations that we’ve been able to go through. There’s not kind of this one moment where I think the team just kind of flipped a switch, I think it’s just been a whole process leading up to how we’re playing right now.”

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge

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