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Edmonton At The End

EDMONTON, CANADA - JUNE 02: Fans cheer on the Edmonton Oilers in Game Six of the Western Conference Final of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Dallas Stars at Rogers Place on June 2, 2024, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

There once was a New York Times sportswriter named Leonard Koppett, a small tweedy fellow but a consummate scribe of his age, a man who used analytics as part of his morning presentations when analytics was known as math. He had the gig for half a century, writing the first truly seminal book on the NBA (24 Seconds To Shoot), covering the Mets when they were bad but not offensive, and in general winning admirers for his unpretentious yet literary style.

None of that is why we mention him here. It is because of his most lasting legacy: Koppett's Law, a codicil that put simply stated that the result that would cause the most inconvenience for the greatest number of beat writers was the result they would get. It was fashioned when sportswriters traveled with the teams they covered no matter where they went, a condition that largely exists only in the mind now, but there was a time when it always seemed to be honored. This Stanley Cup Final, therefore, is Koppett's Law Redux—Edmonton to Miami (well, Sunrise), 2,541 miles, the longest distance between two NHL cities in Finals history, and because there are no direct flights between the two towns, your mileage will vary. And the closest direct flight you can get, in or out of Orlando, only operates on Saturdays.

This is the least likely Final in a lot of ways, and not just because it’s a layover series. The Oilers won Game 6, 2-1 over Dallas, while being outshot 35-10–the third-fewest shots on goal in recorded history by a winning team in the playoffs, and the fewest shots of any Oiler team since the 1979 NHL-WHA merger.

That level of stay-home-and-stay-tidy hockey is not how the Oilers have ever played, absorbing shots and ceding territory all night long. Indeed, several players including Connor McDavid and Zach Hyman acknowledged that the Oilers barely had business winning Game 6 and wouldn't have done so if not for goalie Stuart Skinner. Indeed, the swashbuckling Oil won the final three games of the Western Conference Final by allowing Dallas only four goals, which is plainly antithetical to Edmonton’s historical mission, which is to score six and hope the other team doesn't get to seven.

Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Their next opponent, the Panthers, will put bodies on bodies to make the game play to their collective will. They are not bigger or tougher than Edmonton, but they are more accustomed to grinding out wins since hiring head coach Paul Maurice, and are now a repeat finalist because of it. Maurice has been coaching an NHL team for very nearly half of his life and has developed a style that works for him, while Edmonton coach Kris Knoblauch won't coach his 100th career game until next year—and that's if he doesn't get fired before then. We mention firing because the NHL fires coaches at a much more rapid rate than any other North American sport, and Knoblauch got his job in November because the Oilers fired Jay Woodcroft after 13 games even though Woodcroft had taken the 2022 Oilers to the conference final himself. Knoblauch mostly said the same things Woodcroft did, only with a different voice. Knoblauch hasn't changed how the Oilers play—through McDavid—but they play through McDavid in a more effective way.

This Final, indeed, is probably the best matchup commissioner Gary Bettman could hope for, all things considered. True, New York didn't make it—again, or is it still?—but his life's work of making the southern United States the sport's new world center has been a demonstrable success. The Panthers extend the state of Florida's streak of Cup finalists to five, but the second-best deal for him is to finally have the shine of McDavid on the sport's biggest stage. To this point, McDavid has been the LeBron who never plays in June, and LeBron without June is just Joel Embiid.

This Final also sucks Canada back in after 13 years without a finalist in a normal season (Montreal got there in the COVID season, which we needn't remind you fell well short of normal). This matters more than you might think because while Canadian money is worth 75 cents to the dollar, there will be a lot of it because most Canadians will be backing the Oilers—well, many Canadians, anyway.

Whether this series turns out to be classic is an open question—if Edmonton can only get 10 shots on goal a game, the Panthers could win in three, and not even Maurice's Steven Wright–level comedy stylings could salvage that. Florida may not be the best team either, but if not, it is the best team still playing. The most enduring truth is that the NHL forgets its past quickly, even if its past is only two months old. It's why most players treat the Prince Of Wales Trophy or Clarence Campbell Cup like they are plated with anthrax. The regular season is two weeks long, and the first three rounds of the postseason are just the intermission bumper, a seemingly endless medley of "Let's All Go To The Lobby." Now it's showtime.

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