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Intelligent Hockey: Best Bets for Oilers-Panthers

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There is no silver lining for the loser of the Stanley Cup. Three consecutive series wins are immediately rendered irrelevant. One of two outcomes occur: People forget you made it to the Cup Final, or you are remembered for what you couldn’t finish.

For the best player in the league, Connor McDavid, reaching his first Cup Final but failing to capture it will leave him in the same place that he was at in the beginning of the year. To paraphrase Dominic Moore in an ESPN broadcast during the last playoffs: For better or worse, Stanley Cup wins are a critical part of the criteria for measuring the best of the best. If McDavid loses, there is no solace in second place. The math is simple: McDavid = 0 Cups.

For the Panthers, the stakes are different but no less consequential. Losing consecutive Stanley Cups would yield an unsavory conclusion. You were great but lost when it counted most.

Other preoccupations for Florida will come into stark focus as soon as the season concludes. One is the reality of the salary cap. Sam Reinhart needs to be paid – a lot! There also are age concerns, like Sergei Bobrovsky getting deeper into his 30s. If the Panthers lose again this season, they are still equipped to make the Cup again soon, but key players may be different.

If you don’t have a rooting interest, Edmonton likely represents the feel-good story. Arguably the best player of this century gets his first Stanley Cup win. The Cup drought is over among Canadian teams. Goaltender Stuart Skinner vanquishes the doubters, at least temporarily. A few of the Edmonton players get to take a victory lap in front of their sometimes foe – the Edmonton hockey media.

But in the NHL, outcomes aren’t predetermined by the refs like in the NBA (kidding!), and good narratives collapse every playoffs. The reality is that the Panthers are deeper. They have a more reliable goaltender. They are less vulnerable to short-circuiting if their special teams sputter. If you bet with your heart, the Oilers are the pick. If you want to bet this series with your wallet, the Panthers are the move.

Edmonton Oilers at Florida Panthers
Saturday June 8 – 8:00 PM ET

No nametags will be necessary, and the introductions will start immediately. McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, please meet Panthers defensive anchor Gustav Forsling.

The once unsung hero of the Panthers has become a household name for his outstanding analytics and huge influence on a team that has won the Eastern Conference side of the bracket two years in a row. Forsling plays against opponents’ star forwards and makes plays over 200 feet that keep the Panthers in possession of the puck and on the offensive.

When Forsling and his defensive partner Aaron Ekblad are on the ice this postseason, the Panthers have outshot their opponents 158-107 at 5-on-5 and enjoyed a slight edge in expected goals percentage. To state the obvious, if your adversary is getting outshot and losing the expected goals battle when its best players are on the ice, your chances of winning skyrocket. With Florida having last change on Saturday, I fully expect coach Paul Maurice to use a heavy dose of Forsling to blunt the Oilers’ heavy hitters.

A less than spectacular showing by Edmonton’s stars could be devastating. The Oilers received goals from Mattias Janmark, Connor Brown, and Philip Broberg in Round 3, but their secondary scoring is generally a weak spot that can be preyed upon.

When McDavid and Draisaitl weren’t on the ice during the regular season, the Oilers were outscored by three goals at 5-on-5. When those two are off the ice during the postseason, opponents are outscoring the Oilers 14-7. The Oilers need McDavid and Draisaitl driving the offence, and they will be tested against the NHL’s best defence. At 5-on-5 during these playoffs, the Panthers’ expected goals against is 2.17, a rate so good it would have been the best of any team during the regular season.

But let’s say the Oilers overcome the Panthers’ stingy defence. Can their team defence hold up? With Skinner between the pipes, that is an open question. Skinner has been significantly better lately, but recency bias can be blinding. In 16 games this postseason, he has had eight games with a Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) that yielded a negative. Skinner playing well is a coin toss. Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has been more consistent, posting a positive GSAx in 12 out of 17 games.

In the Western Conference finals, the Dallas Stars tried to attack the Oilers by getting the puck beneath the goal line and by passing the puck into the paint. The Oilers tried to take away the slot by crowding the area in the bottom half of the zone and overloading on the puck to try to kill the play. With so much congestion near the net, the Stars aspired to spread Edmonton out and use their open points, but never were quite able to convert on opportunities to do so. I don’t think the Panthers will have that problem.

The Panthers will be shooting from everywhere, eager to expose Skinner on the short side or force a battle around the net. The Panthers’ defencemen are superb at getting shots through for rebounds and tips, as well as pinching to sustain and fuel the forecheck. The Oilers’ breakout sputtered at different points of the series against Dallas and looked abjectly awful for most of Game 6.

If the Panthers can harness failed breakouts to open up the slot and involve their defencemen to spread Edmonton out and prevent them from packing the bottom half of the zone, the Oilers are probably doomed. The Oilers did have trouble sorting out coverage and boxing out against Dallas during low-slot plays, and the Panthers will be looking to exploit that.

The Oilers have a diverse attack, and how they try to disorient the Panthers will be riveting. Off the rush, Edmonton has several elite puck-handlers who can push back the defence and find the trailer. But can they do that against Florida, a team that gaps up and denies entries as well as any in the NHL? The Panthers were outstanding choking off the New York Rangers’ rush game in Round 3, and space will be hard to come by on the rush for Edmonton.

The Panthers had a decisive advantage in rush chances against the Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning in Rounds 1 and 3, although I think that margin slims against the Oilers. And yet the Oilers’ puck management against a stiff forecheck can feed the opposing rush, and Florida’s counterattack, neutral-zone regroup, and quick-ups are tools they can use to put Edmonton on their heels.

The Oilers’ cycle consists of a lot of motion, handoffs, and interchanges, and they have a range of set plays they use on faceoffs to try to trick the opposing defence. Against the Panthers’ man-on-man defence, I fully anticipate the Oilers to use picks to try to create extra space. But man, the Panthers are difficult to create looks against. They are so physical, and their coordination is so in sync, that finding that slot shot is incredibly difficult. Through three rounds, the Panthers have a +96 slot shot differential, and miraculously it has improved every round.

What hasn’t been mentioned yet is the Oilers’ dazzling power play. How do you stop the McDavid-Draisaitl two-man game? Or the Evan Bouchard rocket from the point? Or the backdoor passes to Zach Hyman and Ryan-Nugent Hopkins?

I suspect the Panthers will continue to be aggressive on the penalty kill. When McDavid tries to go behind the net, I anticipate a hard bodycheck awaiting him. And, of course, Florida will try to deny clean entries as best possible.

One of the most important elements of last round was not just how the Panthers stymied the Rangers’ power play, but also how they coloured inside the lines with their over-the-top physicality to avoid the sin bin. In the last four games of the prior series, the Panthers gave the Rangers a combined nine power plays, including just one in Game 6. The Oilers don’t need many opportunities, but lack of discipline is an easy way for this series to go sideways for Florida.

The Oilers have two superstars at the peak of their powers and they’ve beaten some impressive teams to arrive in the Cup Final. But the Panthers don’t have a clear weakness. They can beat you on the forecheck or rush. Their goaltending can win games. Their team defence keeps them close even when they are flat. I like the Panthers to set the terms with a low-scoring contest and will happily grab the under 6.5 total goals alternate line. I love Florida to take Game 1 and the series.

Picks: Panthers Game 1 Moneyline -138, Alternate Total Goals U 6.5 -172, Panthers to win the series -134