Special to Sports News Highlights

(SNH)  The 2024 Stanley Cup Final gets underway Saturday night in South Florida as the Eastern Conference Champion Florida Panthers will take on the Western Conference Champion Edmonton Oilers.

This is the third all-time appearance in the Cup Final for the Panthers. The Oilers, who last won it all in 1990, are making their first appearance in the Cup Final since 2006.

The Panthers lost in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights last June, while the Oilers lost in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes 18 years ago.

Oilers superstar Connor McDavid was just nine years old when the Oilers lost that seven-game series. Now he’s the best player in the game and has led the proud Oilers’ organization back to the brink of what would be their sixth Stanley Cup.

The Panthers are making their second straight Stanley Cup Final appearance. Their other appearance came in 1996 when they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche.

Matthew Tkachuk is the straw that stirs the drink for the Panthers. He’s a gritty, hard-working, physical player who also has the offensive game to lead his team, which he has done since signing with the Panthers.

After spending the 2015-16 season in the OHL with the London Knights, Tkachuk spent the first six seasons of his career with the Calgary Flames, who drafted him sixth overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Tkachuk knows many of these current Oilers’ players very well as he was a key piece for the Flames, scoring 42 goals in his final season in Calgary, 2021-22, before signing with the Panthers at the start of the 2022-23 season.

It’s no surprise that Tkachuk and the Panthers have advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in the last two seasons. Tkachuk is that impactful of a player and when he was in Calgary facing the Oilers, he was always a thorn in their side. He always stirred the pot against Connor McDavid and his teammates. There is a true dislike between the two sides.

On the Oilers’ side, they have the best 1-2 offensive punch in hockey with superstars McDavid and Leon Draisatil, a dynamic duo in every sense. Both are game-changers and both can turn the game in an instant with their game-breaking ability to skate, pass and score.

McDavid is in his ninth NHL season; Draisatil in his 10th . And these two have come close to getting to the final round of the Stanley Cup playoffs but this is the first time this duo has broken through and won the Western Conference.

McDavid has been a more determined player this season and it all started back in early September of 2023 when he had the Oilers’ core players arrive a week ahead of schedule. He’s been a man on a mission this season and now he has his team on the brink of claiming the biggest prize in hockey.

But on the other side, this Panthers team is one that has been on a mission as well. Ever since losing in the Cup Final last June, Tkachuk and the Panthers’ core players, Captain Alexander Barkov and this year’s Selke Award winner, top defensive forward, Sam Reinhart, along with Sam Bennett and Aaron Ekblad have been on a mission as well to help the Panthers raise Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time in franchise history.

The Panthers said it was great to get to the final last year, but after losing, this season has been all about business and winning the Stanley Cup. They are not just satisfied to be back in the Final for the second straight year.

This Florida team is so good defensively, all the forwards have bought in to what longtime NHL head coach Paul Maurice is asking them to do: defend and turn defense into offense. And so far in this playoff run, it’s worked.

The Panthers knocked off in-state rival Tampa Bay in the first round; they disposed of Boston in the second round and in the Eastern Conference Final they took out the best team in the NHL regular season, the New York Rangers, in six games.

The Panthers have shown thus far, they mean business.

Conversely, the Oilers knocked off the L.A. Kings in the first round, took out the Pacific Division champs -- the Vancouver Canucks -- and lastly, defeated a team many believed were the best team in the West, the Dallas Stars.

The Oilers, like the Panthers, were down 2-1 in the Conference Final and then reeled off three straight wins to close out the series to advance to the Final.

That’s business when it matters most. They are both teams with star power and the right mix of grit and toughness throughout their lineups, the combination you need to win championships. 

The area that may ultimately determine who wins this series is the goaltending. Panthers’ goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has allowed two goals or less in 13 of 17 playoff games, including five of six in the Eastern Conference Final.

The two-time Vezina winner, given to the NHL’s top goalie, is a finalist this season with a 12-5 record in the playoffs. He has a 2.20 goals-against average, a .908 save percentage and one shutout. He’s started and finished all 17 games in the playoffs.

In the Oilers net it’s Stuart Skinner, who is 11-5 with a 2.50 goals-against average, an .897 save percentage with one shutout in 16 playoff games. Skinner had some shaky moments early in the playoffs but in the Western Conference Final, he was at his very best, going 4-2 with 1.91 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage. That includes stopping 33 of 34 shots in the Game 6 clincher against Dallas.

Special teams is going to be another major area of focus in this series and the question will be for the Panthers: Can they limit or somehow slow down McDavid and the Oilers who are 37.3 percent, (19-51). That 37 percent is unheard of in the playoffs, but that’s how good McDavid, Draisatil and Zach Hyman are on the man advantage. Draisatil leads the playoffs with six power play goals, Hyman is tied for second with five on the power play.

The Oilers also lead the playoffs on the penalty kill at 93.9 percent, another unheard of number. But they have killed off 46 of 49 opposition power play chances, including 14-for-14 versus Dallas. The Oilers PK unit has killed off 28 straight power plays going back to Game 3 of the Vancouver series.

The Panthers’ power play is not in the mid 30’s like the Oilers, but it is a respectable 23.3 percent and was 5-for-19 in the Eastern Conference Final against the Rangers. The Panthers do have a dangerous power play weapon in Sam Reinhart, who led the NHL in the regular season with 27 power play goals. He did score three of his four power play goals in the series versus the Rangers.

As for the Panthers’ penalty kill, they are second in the playoffs, trailing only the Oilers, at 88.2 percent. They did suffocate the Rangers’ power play that was at 31.1 percent in the Eastern Final.

This series has the makings to be an absolute classic. The line between these two outstanding clubs is thin. On one side is the best player in the game and his Robin sidekick, Leon Draisatil. On the other side, Matthew Tkachuk and his cast of well-rounded players like Barkov, Reinhart, Bennett and Montour, make up a hungry Panthers team that lost in the Final last season.

There is something to be said about a team getting so close and getting back the next season. The last team to lose in the Final and get back there next season was the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, who lost to Detroit in 2008, then beat the Red Wings in 2009.

As a hardcore hockey fan, I’d like to see McDavid finally get his Stanley Cup. On the other side, I respect the Panthers for their resolve and determination to get back to the Cup Final for a second straight season.

I think, in the end, this series goes seven games and the Florida Panthers get redemption when they win their first Stanley Cup.

Stick taps for Joe Pavelski

Multiple stick taps to 18-year NHL veteran Joe Pavelski who announced on Tuesday he does not plan to play the 2024-25 NHL season.

The Dallas Stars forward, who will turn 40 on July 11, put up 67 points this past season with 27 goals and 40 assists.

“This was it for me. It was known for a while probably,” Pavelski said. “The plan is not to play next year.”

Pavelski will leave the game as one of the best American-born players to ever play in the NHL. He was a seventh-round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2003 and spent 13 seasons with the Sharks before playing the last five seasons with the Dallas Stars.

In his 18 seasons in the NHL, Pavelski scored 476 goals, had 592 assists for 1,068 points in 1,332 regular-season games. Among U.S. born players, Pavelski is fifth all-time in points and goals, seventh in games played and 11th in assists. Pavelski says he plans to spend more time with his family, including coaching his son in youth hockey.

Stick taps for the Saginaw Spirit

The 2024 Memorial Cup championship was decided on Sunday night at the Dow Events Center in Saginaw, Michigan, the home rink of the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit who were the hosts of the 2024 Memorial Cup.

They met the two-time Memorial Cup champions, the London Knights, in the championship game.

The Spirit had never played in the Memorial Cup in their 22 years of existence, let alone, win the Cup. But Sunday night they won the 104th edition of the championship of the CHL, Canadian Hockey League, the top major junior hockey league in Canada.

The Spirit jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the game before London roared back to tie the game at 3-3 midway through the third period. In the final 30 seconds of the game, Josh Bloom found a loose puck and knocked it home for the game winning goal with 21.7 seconds remaining, giving the Spirit the Memorial Cup Championship.

The Spirit are just the third U.S.-based CHL team to win the Cup and the first since 2008, a sterling achievement for the Saginaw Spirit.

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