Why some pressure in Stanley Cup Final is now falling back on Oilers

Florida Panthers head coach Paul Maurice explains why he doesn't think pressure is back on them after losing two straight to the Oilers.

By the time you get to Game 6 of a playoff series, few surprises await on either side of the puck. Neither team has been hiding some secret weapon that would help them win every shift, we know how the coaches prefer to matchup against one another, and it’s basically a battle of who plays well on any given night, who’s healthy, and who gets the bounces.

The Hockey Gods shall have their say yet.

Of all the factors listed above, the only one within control of the players is “who plays well on any given night,” which means that at this stage of the series, pressure becomes a legitimate factor. Legacies are at stake, the coaches and players know it, and that can be arresting.

Pressure has been a part of the story of Edmonton’s comeback. Down 0-3, the Oilers were as written off as I can remember any team being in a Cup Final. Not because anyone thinks they’re a bad team, but come on, said just about everyone: the Florida Panthers have been the most effective team in the league for the past 18 months, and they’re built for the playoffs. Their goaltending had been rock solid and they were relatively healthy, so you’d be forgiven for saying they weren’t suddenly about to lose four straight playoff games against a team they just beat three times.

And with that, the pressure was off Team McDavid. The series was already over, right? There was nothing left to do but let the Panthers unceremoniously finish the job. Whatever the total forces were that led to that Oilers 8-1 shellacking of the Cats — their desperate push, the Panthers taking their foot off the gas, luck, whatever — a lack of pressure on the Oilers seemed to free them up to just throw what they had at their opponent and let the chips fall where they may.

Adding to that pressure for the Panthers: the looming reality that the Oilers have gone on absolute tears after losing three in a row, as has been well publicized.

But also looming, and far less discussed, was that the Panthers have sometimes inexplicably gone ice cold. They lost four straight between January 13 and January 19 of this year. They lost four straight games again between March 13 and March 24 of this year. (They salvaged a few loser points in those OT/SO losses, but that doesn’t exist in the playoffs.)

So, you have Paul Maurice weighing in on the topic now that the Panthers are up just 3-2, saying: “You’re going to think I’m lying to you: I’m more comfortable. I understand the feeling of 3-2 because most series are like that; 3-0 is more of an aberration, isn’t it? Pressure … I think we think about these things possibly differently and I’m not sure I would agree with the assessment that the pressure has shifted so heavily to us.”

As much as that last part seems like a savvy coaching ploy to hopefully deflect some pressure to Edmonton, the reality is, the weight of the pressure has shifted somewhat, and remains a factor to keep an eye on.

The narrative going into Game 5 was “If Edmonton wins, this series is going seven.” It would’ve been tough to find someone who’d disagree with that, at least here in Canada. Everyone saw the display Oilers fans put on with their backs against the wall in Game 4, and was awed by it. Their fans didn’t wither, roll over and just expect to lose – they fought and did their part. They were capital-L Loud from the jump, the Moss Pit was packed, and the Oilers seemed spurred on by it all.

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Now, you’re going to get that again from the fans in Game 6. Nerves and pressure can easily take the form of noise and chaos. The only slight difference is, this time Edmonton is supposed to win. By the narrative out there, by the betting odds, by just about any way you slice it, this is the presumed win that came with “If they get it to Game 6, it’s going seven.”

And with that, there are reasons to be moderately uncomfortable. Matthew Tkachuk woke up like the Undertaker after scoring the Panthers’ first goal in Game 5, and for a team that’s light on elite, top-end talent, that’s big for them. They seem relatively healthy, and they’re a team that has played in these big Cup Final moments before, as recently as last year. The Oilers are now asked to put on a show in front of millions who are expecting one, which to Paul Maurice’s point, might slide at least a little of the pressure on to the Oilers’ plate.

When we talk pressure, we’re talking about a one per cent difference in the performance of certain players that’s mostly unmeasurable and usually unnoticeable. It’s still the big things that will matter most on Friday night — how do the goalies play, how is the game called, how do the bounces fall, and so on. There is rarely one clear moment that can be chalked up to pressure, but to me it freezes people up so there’s the absence of greatness. There’s a quietness in moments where you’re awaiting some profound breakthrough to happen, and it just never comes.

As we’ve seen over the past two days, the World’s Best Hockey Player Connor McDavid has been anything but quiet; he’s been extraordinary. It was the difference in Game 5, cut and dried, full stop. He’s almost certainly locked up the playoff MVP regardless of which team wins the series. Can he do it again?

Most of Florida’s best players — namely Aleksander Barkov, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Sam Reinhart — got real quiet as the pressure built on top of them. Will it affect Edmonton’s clearly great players, whether McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, or even Zach Hyman? Will Evan Bouchard and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins deliver great moments to push this thing to seven?

Despite two teams residing nearly a continent apart, for a while this series looked like a walk. But with pressure shifting like tectonic plates under the skates of the world’s best, it seems there’s many miles left to be travelled.

Pressure is where those plates push up against one another, as they will again Friday night. If the Oilers release it by coming out on top yet again, best believe all of Canada will feel the earthquake.

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