Game 5 Notebook: What Oilers need to do to drag Panthers back north

Gene Principe and Mark Spector get us set for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, discussing the 3 keys for the Oilers to send this series back to Edmonton, and how they can hold off what will be an early onslaught by the Panthers and their fans.

SUNRISE, Fla. — “Drag ‘Em Back to Alberta.”

Can someone write a country song around this? Brett Kissel…?

The Edmonton Oilers‘ lifeline is mighty short these days, so their themes only have a shelf life of a day or two. The latest, “Let’s drag ’em back to Alberta” was coined by Connor McDavid on the post-game podium Saturday in Edmonton, and restated here by Connor Brown Tuesday morning.

“That’s the goal. We’re going to try to drag ‘em back to Alberta,” Brown said. “We love playing on home ice.”

There’s got to be a t-shirt in there somewhere, doesn’t there?

“It’s what we’ve got to do,” McDavid said on Tuesday morning. “You (media) guys have been doing the flight. It’s a long flight. You guys know what it’s like. It’s not the most enjoyable flight, so just make them go on one more plane ride, one more flight. That’s what we’ve got to do.”

For the record, the Oilers captain took part in the morning skate here ahead of an 8 p.m. local start, not something he would always do. But this isn’t your normal, everyday game either.

“I don’t want to be flat,” he said. “Long flights. Lots of treatment. I don’t want to be flat.”

Second time’s a charm?

Talk to teams like the 2022 Colorado Avalanche, and they’ll tell you the same thing: That first chance to clinch the Stanley Cup is overwhelming.

Your whole family flies in. You’re arranging tickets. And your inner circle is gabbing about that moment, what it will be like to mob the shredded ice and pose for selfies with the most beautiful trophy in sport.

Those Avs would later reveal the mental weight and familial distractions of trying to dethrone the Tampa Bay Lightning the first chance they got, in Game 5. They needed another game to settle down and finish the job.

Hanging around the Panthers, we sense a similar vibe.

Kyle Okposo flew his entire family from South Florida to Northern Alberta once he knew the Cup would be in the barn for Game 4, as did the vast majority of Cats.

“I just think it added to everything. You know, this is the first time that all of us except two (Vladimir Tarsenko, Carter Verhaeghe) are in a game where you can win the Cup. Everyone coming in and trying to figure out logistics, there’s just a lot going on,” Okposo told me Tuesday morning.

“Obviously, it didn’t go well for us on the ice.”

The two-day reset has done wonders for the favoured club’s mentality heading into Tuesday’s attempt.

“Oh, yeah. It already does feel like a normal day,” Okposo said. “Went through the video and cleaned up some things. We’ll be ready to go.”

Funny how the NHL Final could parallel the NBA Finals, as the Boston Celtics leapt to a 3-0 lead, got blown out by the Mavericks on the road in Game 4, then sealed the deal in decisive fashion in Game 5.

Okposo was tuned in.

“I always try to watch when a title could get lifted,” he says. “It’s kinda gone the same way. But we’ll see. That’s why you play the game. It’s gonna be fun.”

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Necessary entities

If you think you’re going to beat this Florida team three more times, certain things will have to remain the same for Edmonton from Game 4.

For one, Stuart Skinner will have to continue to be better — or at worst equal — to Sergei Bobrovsky at the other end of the rink. And the depth guys, like Brown and Mattias Janmark, will have to win their battle against the Panthers’ depth players.

And two things that could keep the scales tipped Edmonton’s way? Some powerplay goals, and a productive Leon Draisaitl.

Edmonton’s powerplay is just 1-for-16 in this series, with their only goal coming on a two-man advantage. The unit that was supposed to give them a huge advantage is 0-for-15 at five-on-four.

“It’s similar to the Dallas series,” began Zach Hyman, who is goalless in this Final, “everyone was asking where the powerplay was? Then we scored at the end of the series when it mattered.

“On our powerplay, we always talk about scoring timely goals. It’s not about necessarily how many you score but when you score them,” Hyman said. “We’re a confident powerplay. We seem to find the big goals at the right times, and we’ll need them as the series moves on.”

The other place where the Oilers could use some production is from Draisaitl, whose only two points (both assists) came in that 8-1 blowout in Game 4.

Among NHL players with more than 50 playoff games played, Draisaitl’s points-per-game average of 1.51 is fourth all-time, behind Wayne Gretzky (1.84), Mario Lemieux (1.61) and McDavid (1.59) Draisaitl was averaging 1.56 PPG through the opening three rounds, and whether he’s playing hurt or not, the Oilers need him.

“I haven’t played my best this series here. Trying to find it,” he said. (Tonight) is a great chance for me to step up and be good.” 

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Bounce-back Bob?

When Bobrovsky got chased off the Rogers Place ice Saturday, surrendering five goals on 16 shots before Game 4 was half over, he didn’t get angry or sour. He didn’t pout or smash a stick.

In fact, the stud goalie’s teammates say he was able to laugh and joke and encourage previously bored backup Anthony Stolarz, who saw his first action in two months.

“It’s a new game,” Bobrovsky told reporters after an upbeat post-pull practice in Fort Lauderdale Monday. “It all starts from the beginning. It’s a 0-0 score, and I’m getting ready for the next shot.”

Bobrovsky had entered Game 4 the Conn Smythe favourite, having stopped 82 of 86 shots for an otherworldly (and, ultimately, unsustainable) .953 save percentage in the Final.

The Oilers offence made its overdue explosion, and Bobrovsky suffered his first pull since he gave up five on 16 to the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 1.

Coach Paul Maurice has yet to throw an individual player under the bus during a relatively dominant playoff here, so he’s not about to start with his No. 1 goaltender.

“It’s not like we were lights out and he had a tough night,” Maurice said. “I got him out because he wasn’t going to have anything to do with anything positive that might happen. Fortunately, I think he got 25 minutes of hockey instead of 40 and then we got him out of there.”

Bobrovsky understood Maurice’s decision. The two men didn’t need to have a big discussion over it.

“It is what it is,” said Bobrovsky, who has achieved incredible mental fortitude as his career deepens. “It’s hockey. They have a good team. They’ve got good offence, so it’s part of the journey.

“I try to stay in the moment. It’s good or bad, this doesn’t matter. You just move to the next day.”

The Lombergini revs his engine

The Panthers — having their six-game win streak snapped something fierce in Game 4 — project to make one lineup tweak. Ryan Lomberg will make his 2024 Cup Final debut in place of Steven Lorentz.

Lomberg has been scratched since Game 3 of the Rangers series, so this will be his first game in 23 days.

“I got a full gas tank, so I’ll be excited to let some of it go,” Lomberg smiled after morning skate. “Energy. Speed. Relentlessness.

“It’s gonna be tough to mix in a pre-game nap here. But come game time I’ll be ready to go.”

Naturally, Lomberg would prefer not to get scratched seven consecutive games at the most important time of his career, yet the 29-year-old veteran has learned that being sour “doesn’t help anybody.” Nor is it part of his character.

He’s remained a positive energy source while revving his engines with the black aces.

“He’s electric. He’s fast. He’s physical,” Aleksander Barkov said. “And he brings that fun energy in the locker room and on the ice and in the games. He’s never quiet. That’s a good thing.”

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Panthers Game 5 lines:

Rodrigues – Barkov – Reinhart
Verhaeghe – Bennett – Tkachuk
Luostarinen – Lundell – Tarasenko
Lomberg – Stenlund – Okposo

Forsling – Ekblad
Mikkola – Montour
Ekman-Larsson – Kulikov

Bobrovsky starts

Oilers Game 5 lines:
Edmonton’s lines appear to be staying the same as they were in Game 4.

Foegele – McDavid – Hyman
Nugent-Hopkins – Draisaitl – Holloway
Janmark – Henrique – Brown
McLeod – Ryan – Perry

Ekholm – Bouchard
Nurse – Broberg
Kulak – Desharnais

Skinner starts

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