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Panther Sticks Are Everywhere

EDMONTON, CANADA - JUNE 13: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins #93 of the Edmonton Oilers skates past Carter Verhaeghe #23 of the Florida Panthers during the first period of Game Three of the 2024 Stanley Cup Final at Rogers Place on June 13, 2024 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

The Florida Panthers are the most infuriating team to play against. I say this because they are everywhere. Their high-intensity, high-pressure philosophy, with full buy-in from the players, leaves not a foot of space for opponents to take their time gathering a puck, nor a second to take a breath and plan a next move. I'm starting to wonder if the Panthers' secret sauce is actually just conditioning. Every team wants to do this—an inexhaustible forecheck, a constant swarm on defense—but few-to-none have the legs and lungs to do it from whistle to whistle, to press and push at every single vulnerability and fight for every single puck.

"We play the same way for 60 minutes—or plus, if we have to," said Florida forward Evan Rodrigues after Thursday's 4-3 win in Edmonton. "And we have a belief that if we play that way, we'll get the results we're looking for." It's a Paul Maurice two-way philosophy, modeled by Sasha Barkov and fully committed to after the arrival of Matthew Tkachuk: Pressure. It's undoing the Oilers in this series, whose hopes of attack and counterattack are being disrupted at every turn. Let the puck off your blade for one instant and there's a Panther in your face.

Evan Bouchard, a very good player, goes to gather a drop pass? There's Barkov, poke-checking his way to a rush and a goal.

A moment of miscommunication between goalie and defenseman on a puck behind the goal line? Eetu Luostarinen's winning that battle and setting up an easy one.

I had to watch this goal a couple times to see exactly what the Oilers' "mistake" was, and there wasn't strictly one. All three Florida forwards were forechecking hard on a play in deep when many teams might simply regroup and change lines, and the Panthers eventually got numbers. Tkachuk and Sam Bennett forced Darnell Nurse into a turnover, and Bennett finished the job.

It's easy to pick on Nurse. Fair, too! But Florida is doing it to every skater. I'm out of breath from watching these clips, which represent defensive hockey at its highest level. Edmonton is an offensive machine, and those pesky little Panthers are gumming up the works with their relentlessness. Jam the little cogs and you prevent the big ones from turning. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are goalless in the series, and not necessarily because they specifically have been locked down, but because Florida is smothering Oiler attacks in the crib. That defense has reliably turned pressure into turnovers, and turnovers into goals—their defense truly is their best offense.

Again, every team wants to play this way. They all do, here and there. The good ones do more often than not. The great ones do on every shift, every line. "We have 23 dogs on our team," Bennett said. Those dogs are one more win from the Cats' first Cup.

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