By Dom Luszczyszyn, Sean Gentille and Shayna Goldman

Sometimes, the best teams don’t always win a series. Sometimes, the best teams don’t go the distance. The Stanley Cup playoffs can be cruel in that way — skill and will aren’t always enough.

It’s a treat in the parity era to see the true best of the East and West meet in the Final. It feels like we got that this year with a matchup between Florida and Edmonton — one that is literally too close to call.

There’s not much separating the Panthers and Oilers, and that should make this Stanley Cup Final an all-time classic.


The odds

It’s a true toss-up: 50-50. The Oilers are narrowly better according to the model, but not by enough to surpass Florida’s home-ice advantage.

Handicapping a playoff series isn’t an exact science and anything less than 55 percent might as well be a toss-up, but it is fun to see the margin for the Cup this razor-thin. Both sides are about to face their toughest challenge yet, which should make for an exciting series. It has as strong a chance as possible, at 31 percent, of going the distance.

The key takeaway is there shouldn’t be much of any conviction on which team has the edge. Both the Panthers and Oilers have a strong enough case, and it’s the reason they both got this far to begin with. Now there’s one series left to prove who’s best.

The numbers

The Panthers and Oilers will be each other’s toughest tasks yet. It’s a matchup of the two best offensive teams in the league, with Net Ratings separated by just eight goals.

Florida’s opponents have gotten progressively more difficult as the playoffs have rolled on. Before the Final, the New York Rangers were their most challenging opponent yet with a plus-42 Net Rating. Edmonton’s a completely different animal at plus-89.

The Oilers have had the more daunting path, especially with a matchup against the Dallas Stars in Round 3. That makes their run all the more impressive.

Led by two of the best players in the world, the Oilers have the offensive edge. The power play is a force, clicking at 37.3 percent. To put that in perspective, that’s the eighth-best in NHL history since power-play numbers have been recorded. The results support what Edmonton generates below the surface — a rate of 14.4 expected goals per 60 that leads all playoff teams since the 2007 postseason.

The question is how that will match up to the Panthers’ stout penalty kill, which has been a strength all year and postseason. Florida’s short-handed play was key to its success against New York and will be tested much more against Edmonton.

As great as the Panthers’ penalty kill is, the Oilers may also have the edge on the other end of the ice. They’ve coughed up just 6.11 expected goals against per 60 through three rounds while short-handed, with even better goaltending to match (just three goals against).

The special teams battle tilts toward the Oilers, but Florida has been the better five-on-five team this postseason. The Panthers generate more quality offense, allow less back and have had more stable goaltending through three rounds. The difference is Edmonton has the finishing to punch up its five-on-five scoring above expectations, which Florida will have to try and contain.


The big question

Can Florida stop Connor McDavid’s quest to cement his all-time legacy?

What Connor McDavid has done so far in the postseason would be impressive no matter who he faced. Factor in his competition — top shutdown players and elite defensive squads across the board — and you’ve got a run worthy of an all-time great. McDavid, to put it plainly, has smoked the field.

Against the Los Angeles Kings, it was two Selke-conversation centers (Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault) and a future Hall of Famer who’s still one of the best defensive defensemen in the league (Drew Doughty). Against the Canucks, it was J.T. Miller and a defensive scheme that helped Rick Tocchet earn a Jack Adams.

And against the Stars, it was Chris Tanev and Miro Heiskanen, right-side pillars who’d already combined to shut down, to varying degrees, the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche. Tanev had been particularly good, putting up a league-leading plus-3.5 Defensive Rating despite heavy doses of Jack Eichel and Nathan MacKinnon. By the end of the series, with his five-on-five minutes split evenly between Tanev and Heiskanen, McDavid had put up six points, and the Oilers had outscored the Stars 7-4 with him on the ice. McDavid might’ve saved his best (or worst, if you’re a Stars fan) for an early Game 6 power play, toe-dragging his way around a helpless Heiskanen and beating Jake Oettinger with a backhand. Heiskanen, it bears repeating, is a no-doubt top-10 defenseman in the league. McDavid made him look foolish.

So, on some level, that’s the initial bar for top-line center Aleksander Barkov and first-pair defensemen Gustav Forsling and Aaron Ekblad in the Final — try not to get embarrassed, unlike the elite players who came before them. They’ve spent the last several weeks showing they’re capable, teaming up to effectively limit star forwards in each round (Nikita Kucherov, David Pastrnak and Artemi Panarin).

Kucherov had three five-on-five points and an expected goals rate of about 50 percent in Round 1. Pastrnak fared better in expected goals (about 55 percent) but managed just two points and lost the on-ice shot/scoring chance battles decisively. Panarin performed similarly, putting up just two assists, both secondary, in the Eastern Conference final. The question might be whether a similar “bend but don’t break” approach is viable against McDavid. It’s hard to imagine it working out if Edmonton doubles up on high-danger chances with McDavid on the ice — and that’s what Boston, for example, did with Pastrnak.

It’s worth noting the Panthers have taken care of business on the penalty kill, which is an absolute must against the Oilers. Boston and New York managed one power-play goal apiece, and the Panthers are limiting chances, too; their 6.98 expected goals against/60 is third best in the playoff field. Maybe that bit of precedent will hold up.

What’s certain, though, is that this series will be the toughest yet for both sides. The Kings, Canucks and Stars could throw plenty at McDavid — but not Florida’s combo of high-end skill and suffocating systems. And great as Kucherov, Pastrnak and Panarin may be, they’re not McDavid. Nobody is.

The X-factor

Did Stuart Skinner do enough against Dallas to silence his critics?

“Big-game” reputations are a fickle thing, and players can earn them in a hurry. We might have witnessed that regarding Stuart Skinner in Game 6 against the Stars; he’d started that series as the single biggest reason for concern on the Oilers’ roster and finished it as one of the main catalysts for the franchise’s first conference title of the McDavid era.

Skinner’s issue heading into Round 3 was postseason play that didn’t nearly live up to what he’d shown in the regular season. In his first 22 playoff games, from 2023 to the end of Round 2, Skinner was projected to stop 2.8 goals above expected. He’d allowed 14.4 instead, including a run against Vancouver that was bad enough to get him benched. Despite that, the model weights regular-season data more heavily, so Skinner came into the Dallas series with a better projection than Oettinger. Crazy, right? It felt wrong, and we said as much.

All he did, of course, was outplay Oettinger, saving 5.3 goals above expected in six games, including a stunning 2.96 in the clincher. Skinner has got plenty left on his plate, and those first 22 games can’t be erased. He’s also taken an undeniable step toward one of the best resume lines of all: the Cup-winning goalie.


The rosters

Everything always starts with McDavid, who once again is putting the Oilers on his back by being exactly as good as you’d expect him to be.

That’s no small feat for someone facing defenses hellbent on stopping him. Good defenses. In the playoffs, he has 31 points in 18 games, has 56 percent of the expected goals and has outscored opponents 21-12. You know, typical McDavid stuff. His Net Rating of plus-7.1 is best among forwards, a plus-32 pace right on par with his projection.

The Oilers aren’t in the Final because of McDavid alone. It’s the team’s core that’s propelled them. Leon Draisaitl has once again been a playoff madman, nearly matching McDavid in scoring. Zach Hyman has been a goal-scoring machine with his willingness to make the dirty areas his home. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has scored at above a point-per-game rate. And the top pair of Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm have been exemplary.

Every core piece is not only pulling their weight, they’re elevating when it matters. Their combined projected Net Rating through 18 playoff games is plus-21.5. They’re playing at a plus-32.8 rate.

That’s not just a result of dominating the power play, which is an unstoppable force. They’ve been just as lethal at five-on-five, where the top five playoff scorers in the league are all Oilers.

That’s magnified especially with Bouchard, whose play-driving ability has created an environment where the Oilers earn 61 percent of the expected goals. That’s four percentage points better than the next-best Oiler and has led to the team outscoring opponents 25-11 in his minutes. Bouchard had a magnificent breakthrough season in which he pushed himself into the conversation as one of the 10 best defensemen in the world. In these playoffs, he’s found another level entirely where top five isn’t out of the question. He’s that good.

The question in this round will be the same as it has been in every round: Will that be enough?

The Oilers are a top-heavy team that has struggled to win matchups outside those minutes. There have been some bright spots here and there with several depth pieces contributing handsomely to the team’s stellar penalty kill. But it does leave the Oilers vulnerable against the Panthers — especially if the middle six and bottom pairs continue to flounder.

Edmonton has yet to figure out the right mix in the middle six, and though Adam Henrique’s return helped solidify things, having Corey Perry in the top six in 2024 doesn’t feel ideal. That could mean a return of Ryan McLeod and the currently scratched Warren Foegele flanking Draisaitl. The two wingers have been Edmonton’s biggest disappointments during these playoffs but were a force with Draisaitl during the season, earning 57 percent of the expected goals and outscoring opponents 12-4 in 145 minutes. That trio was Edmonton’s third-most-used line during the season but has only been used for 2.2 minutes in the postseason.

The bigger issue is on defense where things have often looked dire outside the top pair. Darnell Nurse having the opposite Midas Touch has been a massive problem so far, and it hasn’t been solved with any of his current partners — none of whom can handle tougher opponents. He profiles like a No. 2 defenseman, which should be an advantage for the Oilers, but he’s looked far from the part with a league-worst minus-3.4 Net Rating during the playoffs. Cody Ceci isn’t far behind.

Nurse getting back on track would provide a boost for the Oilers, but that’s easier said than done against a Panthers team that will be the fiercest offensive team Edmonton has faced yet.

The Panthers can attack in many ways, but their biggest emphasis is an aggressive forecheck that will be difficult for Edmonton’s defense to stop. No team recovers more pucks than Florida’s 10 per 60 and no team creates more chances off the cycle than its 28 per 60 according to data tracked by Corey Sznajder. That’s a big step up from Dallas, Vancouver and Los Angeles, one that the Oilers’ defense might be especially vulnerable against.

What makes Florida’s forecheck so special is that it’s highly influenced by the team’s best players. The league’s best at recovering dump-ins are usually bottom-six grinders who can’t create dangerous chances off them. There wasn’t a need to worry about Blake Lizotte or Carl Grundstrom in Round 1 or Nils Hoglander or Sam Lafferty in Round 2. Roope Hintz is strong in that area, but the Stars as a whole were not. Florida on the other hand has both Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk, who are top 10 in the league for recoveries. That they’re on two separate lines is a problem.

While Florida’s star power isn’t quite on par with Edmonton’s, the Panthers might be the closest team to matching it.

Between Barkov, Tkachuk, Sam Reinhart and Carter Verhaeghe, the Panthers have a quartet that makes life hell for opposing teams. All four have earned north of 56 percent of the goals and expected goals during the playoffs with three scoring at a point-per-game pace (Reinhart being the lone exception). On the back end, the Panthers also have an elite top pair of Forsling and Ekblad who have shut down top offenses and earned over 60 percent of the goals.

Together they were expected to have a combined Net Rating of plus-18.7, not that far off Edmonton’s core. Through the playoffs, though, they’re at plus-16 which is around expectations, but not nearly close to what the Oilers’ guys have done.

If they can’t slow down Edmonton’s top players, the difference will have to be made up elsewhere. That’s more than possible given how Florida’s depth has stepped up in the playoffs. Sam Bennett and Anton Lundell in particular have been strong, giving the Panthers strength down the middle.

The biggest difference might just be on defense where Florida’s second and third pairs have done an excellent job controlling play. Oliver Ekman-Larsson leads the team’s defense with 59 percent of the expected goals, and Brandon Montour has been exceptional with 56 percent while outscoring opponents 13-9.

On paper, the two defense corps look comparable, but Florida’s is actually delivering and playing three pairs deep. Edmonton’s will need to step up and do the same. That’s especially true if Sergei Bobrovsky keeps up his usual playoff heroics. He’s up to 7.7 goals saved during the playoffs.

The key matchup

Matthew Tkachuk vs. Leon Draisaitl

​​If the Oilers and Panthers have anything in common, it’s star power at the top of their lineups. McDavid and Barkov lead the way for their respective teams, but both teams boast elite No. 2 forwards behind them.

In Florida, that’s Tkachuk who has 19 points in 17 games. He is a unicorn in the NHL as a rat king with elite skill. While he isn’t as clutch of a goal scorer this postseason compared to last, his playmaking remains dynamic. And this time, unlike last season, a broken sternum isn’t slowing him down, which should give him some fuel to change last year’s result.

Like Tkachuk, Draisaitl continues to raise the bar in the playoffs with 28 points in 18 games. His goal scoring from sharp angles tends to stand out, especially on the power play. But playmaking is an underrated element of his game, especially at even strength. While the Oilers have stacked McDavid and Draisaitl at times to get a spark, the fact he can drive his own line gives Edmonton a dominant one-two punch in the top six.

Tkachuk and Draisaitl continue to show they’re among the best skaters in the world. And when the pressure rises in the playoffs, both elevate their game to match that energy.


The bottom line

This series is a fitting reminder that not everything can be predicted, prognosticated or plotted out in advance. After nine months of prelude, we’re about to watch a clash between the two most talented teams in the league — and one that couldn’t be any closer. It’s time to sit back and enjoy it.

References

How these projections work
Understanding projection uncertainty 

Resources

Evolving Hockey
Natural Stat Trick
Hockey Reference
NHL
All Three Zones Tracking by Corey Sznajder

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic. Photos: Joel Auerbach, Sam Hodde / Getty Images)



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