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Florida Panthers' Stanley Cup Finals task: Can they contain Connor McDavid and Co.?

Jordan McPherson, Miami Herald on

Published in Hockey

MIAMI — The Florida Panthers have already gotten past the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. They fended off the Boston Bruins’ David Pastrnak in the second round. And they limited the New York Rangers’ Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider, Vincent Trocheck and Mika Zibanejad in the Eastern Conference final.

Now comes perhaps the biggest task to date as they prepare for the Stanley Cup Finals: Finding a way to stop a high-flying Edmonton Oilers offense led by one of the best players in the league in center Connor McDavid.

How exactly does one slow down McDavid, who leads the NHL with 31 points this playoffs?

“You don’t,” defenseman Aaron Ekblad said.

Well then ...

What’s the answer for stopping a player who has logged at least 100 points in seven of the past eight seasons?

“I don’t have one,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.

Oh ...

And if the Panthers are able to contain McDavid, they still have the challenge of limiting everyone around him, including Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman.

It’s a tall task, no doubt.

But the Panthers’ defense has shown time and again it can handle tough challenges on offense. When the puck drops at 8 p.m. ET Saturday at Amerant Bank Arena for Game 1, the biggest challenge begins.

“These top players on this team are matched by nobody,” Panthers forward Sam Reinhart said. “I think we’re a confident group. I think [if] you play them a little more passive, that’s when they’re going to get you. So, we’ve got to try to take away their time and space. They’re going to make plays. They’ve got some of the best players in the world, so we’re excited for the opportunity and challenge.”

That opportunity and challenge starts with McDavid, who has proven to be the best player of his generation. Over the course of nine regular seasons, McDavid has logged 982 career points (335 goals, 647 assists). He has a combination of speed, stickwork, instincts and hockey IQ that is unmatched by anyone. He can slice through entire defenses with ease.

This postseason, McDavid has five goals and 26 assists. His 26 assists are more than any player this playoffs not on the Oilers.

“It’s a group effort, never one person,” star winger Matthew Tkachuk said. “We’ve got a really good defensive team here. That’s just speaks to how 20 guys have bought into it. So it’s got to be [a] group. We’ve got guys that can skate just like them. McDavid’s probably the fastest guy in the world, so we’ve gotta be on the right side of it. If you’re even [with him] or behind him, he’s gonna beat you. We’ve just gotta be in front of him at all times and have layers of support.”

 

But the opportunity and challenge certainly does not end with McDavid. Draisaitl has 10 goals and 18 assists this playoffs and has formed a formidable one-two punch with McDavid for the past decade.

(And this doesn’t begin to talk about Hyman and his playoff-leading 14 goals or Nugent-Hopkins 20 points in the postseason).

Sometimes, McDavid and Draisaitl play on the same line. Other times, they are split up and each carries his own line to give Edmonton more depth in its lineup.

“That changes some of the dynamic you’ve got to prepare for,” Maurice said. “But these two men, you can’t play a one-on-one game with them. They’re just too fast, too strong, too skilled, so it’s just a five-man defensive game, and everything else that’s going to come out of my mouth would be cliche.”

Luckily for the Panthers, their five-on-five defense has been one of the best in the league all season and playoffs.

Florida gave up the fewest goals in the regular season at five-on-five with 119 — an average of 1.45 goals against per game when the game is played at full strength.

In the playoffs, they have given up an average of 1.41 goals per game at five-on-five and did so by limiting the top players they faced each round.

In Round 1, they held Kucherov without a goal as they beat the Lightning in five games.

In Round 2, they held Pastrnak to three points (one power play goal and two assists) as they dispatched Boston in six games.

And in the Eastern Conference final, none of Panarin, Zibanijad or Kreider scored with the game at even strength and Trocheck had just two goals and six points as Florida beat the Rangers in six games to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals.

They’ve been tested all playoffs. Now comes one more big test.

“Beginning with our experience, I think we’ve learned kind of our way, our style of what makes our great, what makes us win hockey games,” defenseman Brandon Montour said. “I think we’re just at that point where we’re feeling good.”

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©2024 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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