Oilers can learn valuable lessons from Panthers’ process, system

Luke Fox joins Kyper and Bourne to discuss how the Panthers all-in defensive structure has completely subdued the Oilers stars in the Stanley Cup Final and how it may be the biggest reason why the team is on the verge of a sweep.

EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers have to learn what Florida learned a year ago, when the Vegas Golden Knights were pumping, five, seven and nine goals past the vulnerable Panthers goalies in a five-game Stanley Cup romp.

Today, these Panthers no more look like a team ready to give up five or seven goals in a single game, than Ryan McLeod looks like Raffi Torres. Because they learned.

Edmonton’s game was good enough to get them here. It’s not good enough to win here.

Why?

It is imperative that they learn this spring what the Panthers learned 12 months ago. What the ’83 Oilers learned that allowed them to become the ’84 Cup winning Oilers.

And the first lesson has to be this:

Don’t talk about the goals. It’s not about the goals.

And, with apologies to head coach Kris Knoblauch, it sure as hell isn’t about the expected goals.

Listen to Sam Bennett talk about his team:

“I think it comes down to every single guy buying into it. Every single guy’s committed to playing that defence-first and that system of coming back, supporting each other. That’s what you need to have success, so it’s really been just a full commitment from the entire group.

“When you play good defensive hockey, you’re going to force turnovers. That’s our goal, and as soon as we turn it over we’re trying to re-attack right away. So, that’s what happens when you play good defence.”

Florida’s top players are outworking Edmonton’s top players in this series. Up and down the roster, the 50/50 battles are about 65/35 in the Panthers’ favour.

“At the end of the day, it’s battles, right?” began Warren Foegele. “You get into hockey and as you get through the professional level, everyone’s talking about 50/50s, and the team who wins more 50/50s ends up winning the game, mostly.

“Board battles are the key. Battles all over the ice, battles in front of the net. That’s where you find out usually who the winner is.”

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Remember, the bar is high.

The Oilers have proven themselves worthy of being a Stanley Cup Finalist. Give them the credit they’ve earned; They are an elite team that was better than the Dallas Stars, and everyone else they faced.

Now, they have to figure out to be worthy of winning a Stanley Cup.

“In the Cup Final,” began Florida head coach Paul Maurice, “there’s nobody not battling on the wall anymore. The stakes are too high. You’re getting everybody’s best effort. For the Oilers and Panthers, a lot of the games are pucks that just bounce. You can’t get a stick on it, and if you do everything changes.

“So what you’re left with is, put your ass on that wall and do the best you can.”

Win the battle for the middle of the ice, and then win the walls as well? You’re three-quarters of your way to winning the series.

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It’s a style Edmonton will have to embrace to take this final, vital step. Because, like it or not, Stanley Cups are not won on the backs of powerplays the way regular season games or the early playoff rounds are.

Love it or hate it, the game being played in June is entirely different than the one you played in January.

“They’re really good on the walls,” said Oilers defenceman Cody Ceci of the Panthers. “They’re really good at supporting each other in the battles. They all come close to the puck, so we’ve got to do a better job of spreading them out. We got to do a better job at forechecking.”

Oilers forwards fly the zone in anticipation of a well-executed zone exit, and are exposed when that execution does not happen. It’s called “playing fast,” until you get in against a team as good as Florida. Then they call it something different entirely — perhaps cheating for offence?

Then there’s the physicality, as an Oilers team spends another series eschewing that playoff staple of taking their pound of flesh at every opportunity.

Edmonton’s forwards have spent these playoffs passing up hits on Drew Doughty, then Quinn Hughes, then Miro Heiskanen, and now Aaron Ekblad and Gustav Forsling. And the guiltiest among them, starting with but not limited to McLeod, don’t miss a shift when they complete another fly by.

That’s on the coaching staff, who have rewarded a player with ice time when he doesn’t play the right way. That tells everyone, “It’s OK not to play playoff hockey in June.”

It’s OK to come in somewhere below the standard Bennett spoke of above.

The Panthers process is winning this series, far more than the Oilers expected goals or lack of powerplay goals are losing it. The games are being played at Florida’s pace, to their preferred level of physicality, at their behest in the style that they dictate.

One team is frustrated. The Oilers have to figure out why they are that team,

“That’s just the kind of series it’s been so far,” said Ceci. “We’ve got to work so hard to get down there and get a chance. Then they come down and we ended up giving them a couple goals. It’s just deflating in that way. We’re working so hard to get our chances, and then we end up giving up a couple to them that should be preventable.”

Quit worrying about the goals.

Start worrying about the process.

With the skill Edmonton has, if they learn how to win in the guts of the game, they’ll be the next team to learn the hard way before drinking from Big Stanley.

Even if it’s a year or two from now.

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