NHL: Oilers’ stars meet redemption-minded Panthers in Stanley Cup Game 1

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This is Leon Draisaitl’s 10th NHL season and Connor McDavid’s ninth. Reaching the Stanley Cup Final has been a long, arduous journey for the Edmonton Oilers’ dynamic duo, but they have finally completed that quest.

McDavid, Draisaitl and company will kick off the best-of-seven championship series against the Florida Panthers on Saturday in Sunrise, Fla.

Considering the length of time McDavid and Draisaitl have been NHL superstars, asking what took so long is a legitimate question.

“Yes, it took us a while to get here, but with that being said, we were young kids coming in and the weight of the world on our shoulders, it felt like, and everybody expecting us to do everything,” Draisaitl said Friday. “We weren’t ready to understand what it really takes to win when you’re 19, 20, 21 years old. That’s just a fact. Sometimes it takes a little longer. I think the last few years, we’ve improved in those scenarios and gotten better and better.”

The Oilers last won the Stanley Cup in 1990 and last reached the final in 2006. The Panthers are in the final for the second consecutive season, having lost to the Vegas Golden Knights one year ago, and are looking for the franchise’s first title.

Edmonton, which beat the Dallas Stars in six games in the Western Conference final, won only two of its first dozen regular-season games and was 31st in the league standings when coach Kris Knoblauch was hired to replace the fired Jay Woodcroft.

“With the way our team played all year, going through what we had to go through, that’s a massive reason why we are where we are,” goaltender Stuart Skinner said. “Going through that, you really create a strong friendship, an incredible bond. We dug ourselves a big hole, dug a big hole in playoffs and crawled out.”

The Panthers eliminated the regular-season champion New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference final in six games. Returning to the final has been a front-and-center goal all season.

“When we started this year, we didn’t say, ‘We’re not talking about last year.’ We’re gonna take everything we possibly can, what we learned from last year and talk about it all year long,” coach Paul Maurice told NHL Network. “Last year, each series, even making the playoffs, was an absolute event on its own. … It was all fun and flat-out as hard as we could go.”

That businesslike mindset was reiterated by several players during their final media availability before the series kicks off.

“It feels a little different,” Florida defenseman Gustav Forsling said when asked to compare his team’s approach from one year ago. “I feel we’re not satisfied at all. We know how hard it is to get here and really want to take care of this opportunity.”

A huge part of their game plan will be to shut down Edmonton’s potent attack, led by McDavid and Draisaitl, who already have netted 31 and 28 points, respectively, during this playoff run.

“We treat this series as any other series,” defenseman Dmitry Kulikov said. “Every other team we played has dangerous players that could score and turn a game. Our mindset doesn’t change.”

In the special teams matchup, Edmonton has the best power play (37.3 percent, 19-for-51) and penalty kill (93.9 percent, having snuffed 28 consecutive situations) of the postseason. Florida’s power play is at 23.3 percent — 14-for-60 — and with a penalty kill at 88.2 percent, which ranks second.

The Panthers won both regular-season meetings by a combined 10-4 score.

–Field Level Media

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