Updated June 3rd, 2024 at 11:11 IST

The ultimate NHL match is set: Florida Panthers, Edmonton Oilers will meet in the Stanley Cup Final

The Stanley Cup Final matchup is set: The Florida Panthers, back in the title round for the second consecutive year and seeking their first championship, will take on the Edmonton Oilers — a team looking to return to hockey’s mountaintop for the first time since 1990.

Edmonton Oilers fans cheers their team before the start of the first period of Game 6 of the Western Conference finals of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs in Edmonton, Alberta | Image: AP
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Matthew Tkachuk is about to renew some acquaintances. Connor McDavid is going back to where his NHL career started.

The Stanley Cup Final matchup is set: The Florida Panthers, back in the title round for the second consecutive year and seeking their first championship, will take on the Edmonton Oilers — a team looking to return to hockey’s mountaintop for the first time since 1990.

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Edmonton wrapped up the Western Conference on Sunday night, eliminating the Dallas Stars with a 2-1 victory to end that series in six games. Florida won the Eastern Conference on Saturday night , topping the New York Rangers 2-1 to also finish off a six-game series.

Game 1 of the Cup final is Saturday night in Florida. The Panthers are in the title series for the third time; the Oilers are seeking their sixth Cup in what will be their eighth trip to finals. Edmonton hasn’t played for the Cup since losing a seven-game series to Carolina in 2006. And the Oilers have a chance to end a bizarre streak, given hockey's meaning and deep ties to Canada — no team from a Canadian city has won the Stanley Cup since Montreal in 1993.

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“Unbelievable,” Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said in a televised on-ice interview Sunday night, as fans in Edmonton celebrated the clincher over Dallas. “Best fans in the league. It’s incredible to do it, to get to the next level in front of these fans. Obviously, we’ve got a ton of work to do. We’re playing a good team.”

There is serious star power on both sides. Florida has Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart and Sergei Bobrovsky among its leaders; Edmonton has McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins among its top draws.

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Tkachuk came to Florida in a trade from Calgary in 2022 and famously got into the ties that bind — or don’t bind — hockey in Alberta at his introductory news conference with the Panthers, saying “I hate Edmonton, but I hate Tampa more now.”

This season’s playoff run for Tkachuk and Florida started with Tampa Bay, a five-game win. It’ll end with Edmonton, and Tkachuk will surely be welcomed back to Alberta less than warmly.

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“Nothing better than playing hockey in June,” Tkachuk said.

McDavid’s first Stanley Cup Final game will be in the building where he officially pulled on an NHL sweater for the first time. He was the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft, one held in the building that the Panthers call home. Commissioner Gary Bettman was there to greet him with a handshake and a few words of congratulations when he took the stage that night — “this is awesome,” Bettman told him — and in a couple of weeks, Bettman will hand either McDavid or Barkov the Stanley Cup for the first time, the moment that captains in the NHL want to enjoy most.

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“Feels like a dream, honestly,” McDavid said.

There’s going to be a slew of names that get etched onto the Cup for the first time when this series is over, since hardly anyone on either side has previously been part of a championship.

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For Florida, Vladimir Tarasenko won it with St. Louis in 2019 and Carter Verhaeghe won it with Tampa Bay in 2020. For Edmonton, Corey Perry won it with Anaheim in 2007 — and is now back in the title round for the fourth time in five years, with a fourth different franchise. He lost with Dallas in 2020, Montreal in 2021 and Tampa Bay in 2022.

“It’s unbelievable, being back in the finals,” Tarasenko said.

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Neither head coach has won the Cup either. Florida’s Paul Maurice has coached 1,978 games in the NHL, third-most in league history; Edmonton’s Kris Knoblauch has officially coached 87 games, tied for 275th-most in league history. He filled in as coach for the Rangers in six other games in 2021, called up from the team’s American Hockey League affiliate because then-Rangers coach David Quinn and his staff were sidelined by COVID-19 protocols.

The Panthers won both games against the Oilers this season, 5-3 at home on Nov. 20 and 5-1 at Edmonton on Dec. 16. Knoblauch took over as coach after 13 games this season when Edmonton fired Jay Woodcroft following a 3-9-1 start; the only opposing coaches Knoblauch didn’t beat this season were Maurice and Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper, going 0-2-0 against both.

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“Last year, after we finished the Carolina series, trying to find the right word … pandemonium is not the right word, but the energy level postgame was through the roof,” Maurice said, comparing this year’s East title win to last season’s victory in that round. “Slightly subdued this year relative to that. It was lots of happy people. But maybe we’ve got a little more experience now. And I feel that way, even on the bench. It wasn’t insanity. When the buzzer went, it was excitement, and rightfully so. We worked pretty hard to win.”

The hardest challenge of them all starts in Sunrise on Saturday night.

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Published June 3rd, 2024 at 11:11 IST