Fan's guide to Stanley Cup Final: Top players, storylines

Connor McDavid's power-play goal opens the scoring in Game 6 (0:42)

Connor McDavid makes a brilliant move and backhands the puck into the net to give the Oilers a 1-0 lead. (0:42)

After nearly two months of Stanley Cup playoffs, we are down to two teams left. The Florida Panthers and Edmonton Oilers begin the final series of the season Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN+), with the ultimate prize in hockey on the line.

As a service to those fans who haven't been following every shot, save and overtime thriller of the 2024 NHL postseason, here is the lapsed fan's guide to the Stanley Cup Final -- a quick primer on the conference champs, how they got here and what to look out for in the series.

Wait a second ... Florida Panthers vs. Edmonton Oilers? Wasn't this the New York Rangers' year?

It sure seemed like the Rangers were a team of destiny. It was the 30th anniversary of their last Stanley Cup win in 1994. They rolled through the first two rounds of the playoffs with overtime heroics. Rempe-mania was running wild! As coach Peter Laviolette admitted, from the players to the rest of the organization, "We truly believed we were going to win the Stanley Cup."

Alas, the Rangers ran into a Panthers team in the Eastern Conference finals that smothered them defensively and drained their potent power play.

They ended up as the latest example of the Presidents' Trophy curse: Since 1985, only eight teams that finished with the NHL's best regular-season record went on to win the Stanley Cup. Since the NHL went to the wild-card format in 2013, no Presidents' Trophy-winning team has even reached the Stanley Cup Final.

According to maps, Edmonton, Alberta, and Sunrise, Florida, seem very far apart.

Your geography is correct. According to the NHL, the Oilers and Panthers are 2,541 miles apart, the largest distance between two teams in a Stanley Cup Final. The previous record was set during the 2011 Final between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins at 2,500 miles apart.

There's going to be a lot of time on the plane for both teams. Edmonton is a bit more used to that than Florida at this point in the postseason.

Said Edmonton's Corey Perry of the flight to South Florida: "It was a ton of fun. I watched my show, I fell asleep, got up, watched the shows and we landed. Had a few meals in between."

The Panthers' plane has a card table that draws some intense games among the players. The Oilers' plane also has a card table, but the most intense games are on the Nintendo Switch, specifically Mario Kart. Goalie Stuart Skinner revealed that he plays as Toad.

But the distance isn't the only stark difference between the two franchises. There's also the rats and the steaks.

Rats and steaks?

Since 1995, it's been a tradition at Panthers home games for fans to throw plastic rats on the ice in celebration. It stems from a legendary day when forward Scott Mellanby used his stick to exterminate a rat in the locker room before the team's home opener that year and then used the same stick to score two goals in the game -- scoring what his teammates called "a rat trick." Florida would go on to play for the Stanley Cup that season, with fans tossing plastic rats on the ice, and the tradition has endured.

In Edmonton, the beef is back. During the Oilers' 2006 run to the Stanley Cup Final, a local DJ encouraged fans to throw slabs of meat on the ice as a response to the Detroit Red Wings' tradition of hurling octopi on the ice. The Oilers upset the Red Wings in the first round, and the beef tossing continued. Some steaks were seen on the ice in Edmonton during this run to the Final, continuing a juicy tradition.

What's the big-picture view of Panthers vs. Oilers?

The Panthers are trying to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The Oilers haven't won one since the end of their dynasty in 1990.

The Panthers are the deeper team on paper, especially on defense and in goal. But they don't have Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl, two generational talents seeking their first championship after several years of frustrating results in the playoffs.

It's South Florida, which is finally starting to boom as a hockey market after three decades, vs. Canada, as the Oilers attempt to become the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since 1993.

Is Canada rallying around the Oilers to break the drought?

To put the Cup drought into perspective: Canada has seen an NBA champion (Toronto Raptors, 2019) and a World Series champion (Toronto Blue Jays, 1993) since the nation last had a Stanley Cup champion.

The Canucks (twice), Oilers, Calgary Flames, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators all had their shots at breaking the drought and fell short. What we learned from all of those previous attempts: Canadians rooting for a team to win the Cup just because it's from Canada is a myth. It's an invention. It's often talked about but never happens.

Think of it logically: Would a fan of the Flames, the Oilers' in-province rival, ever want to see Edmonton win anything, especially against a team with ex-Flames star Matthew Tkachuk? Would a Canucks fan whose team lost in seven games to these Oilers suddenly cheer for them? Does anyone in Toronto want anything good to happen for any other Canadian team when the Leafs haven't won since 1967?

Of course not. It's silly. There's only one team Canada rallies around to root for, and it's the one that competes for gold medals, not the Stanley Cup.

The Panthers used to be terrible. How did they become annual Stanley Cup finalists?

Here's a wild fact: Coach Paul Maurice, the quippy bench boss who also coached the Panthers to the Final for the second time in their history last season, is responsible for half (25) of the franchise's playoff wins (50). Florida used to be known for not making the playoffs, at one point qualifying only twice in an 18-year span. The Panthers have now made the playoffs in four straight seasons.

Much of the credit goes to GM Bill Zito, who arrived in 2020 and added players such as Tkachuk, Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart and Carter Verhaeghe to the roster. He also hired Maurice, who has guided Florida back to the Final after losing to Vegas in five games last June.

The Panthers are just the sixth team since 1968 to play for the Stanley Cup the season after losing in the Final. The last two that did -- the 2009 Penguins and the 1984 Oilers -- won it all on their second try. If there's one big narrative for the Panthers, it's the unfinished business in trying to win the Stanley Cup for the first time.

What's different about this version of the Panthers in the Final?

They're healthier, for sure. Among the injuries Florida had against the Golden Knights: Defenseman Aaron Ekblad had a broken foot and two separated shoulders, and Tkachuk broke his sternum before Game 3. But the Panthers are also a different team defensively. They were 21st in goals against per game in 2022-23 (3.32) but rose to first in the NHL (2.41) this season.

They used that defense -- and the clutch goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky -- to defeat the rival Tampa Bay Lightning in five games; oust the Bruins in six games, in a rematch of the Panthers' shocking first-round upset of the B's last season; and then eliminate the Rangers in six games.

Bobrovsky is seeking his first Stanley Cup in a career that has seen him win the Vezina Trophy twice as the league's top goalie and eliminate the regular-season's best team three times in the playoffs. Last season, he carried the Panthers and faced a bunch of shots; this season, the defense has been better and a more rested Bobrovsky has been a solid last line of defense for Florida.

But this season, the key defensive matchup should be Aleksander Barkov, who won the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward, taking on McDavid.

Weren't the Oilers basically cooked early in the season?

It certainly appeared that way. Edmonton was 3-9-1 when the Oilers fired coach Jay Woodcroft and replaced him with Kris Knoblauch, who was coaching the Rangers' AHL affiliate in Hartford, Connecticut. (Knoblauch was also McDavid's junior hockey coach, and the Oilers star has denied having any influence on the coaching change.) The Oilers added Hockey Hall of Famer Paul Coffey to Knoblauch's bench to help coach the defense.

Edmonton then turned its season around, going 46-18-5 under Knoblauch to finish second in the Pacific Division. The Oilers eliminated the Los Angeles Kings for the third straight first round (4-1) and then outlasted the Canucks in a seven-game second-round series that might have been a defining moment for them as contenders -- and for their first-year coach.

How did the Vancouver series change the Oilers?

If there was a weak link for Edmonton entering the playoffs, it was goaltending. Stuart Skinner was squarely in "just don't lose us a series" territory.

For the first eight games of the playoffs, despite winning five of them, he was a liability: a save percentage of .877 in back of an inconsistent defense. So Knoblauch benched him for Games 4 and 5 against Vancouver in favor of journeyman Calvin Pickard, to give Skinner a reset and to give a wake-up call to the Oilers.

Skinner's next eight games: six wins and a .919 save percentage, with Edmonton out-defending a very good Dallas Stars team in its six-game Western Conference finals win. Finally, there appeared to be a team playing championship-level hockey surrounding McDavid.

What's so special about McDavid, anyway?

Sometimes it's better to show than tell:

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That's McDavid against the Stars in Game 6 of the conference finals, posterizing two defenders before beating goalie Jake Oettinger. It was less than five minutes into the biggest game of McDavid's career, with a trip to the Cup Final on the line. For anyone else, this is a career-defining highlight. For McDavid, it's simply known as "Connor doing Connor things."

McDavid leads all playoff scorers with 31 points in 18 playoff games. That includes 26 assists, putting him five helpers away from Wayne Gretzky's NHL record for most assists in a single postseason (31 assists in 1988). McDavid has scored in 14 games, with nine multipoint games.

He has collected a lot of hardware during his nine-year NHL career -- five scoring titles, three MVP awards -- but this is his first chance to play for the Stanley Cup. And he might finally have the right team around him to win it.

What do the Oilers have beyond McDavid?

Leon Draisaitl is every bit the generational talent and franchise pillar McDavid is. He has 28 points in 18 games, including 10 goals. There were times when it was Draisaitl who stepped up in both ends of the rink to lead the Oilers to victory during the playoffs. As magical as McDavid is, the Oilers aren't here without Draisaitl.

Neither of the two has the goal total of Zach Hyman, although McDavid and Draisaitl have certainly contributed to it. Hyman leads the playoffs with 14 goals, after scoring 54 goals in the regular season. That puts him in range to threaten the NHL record of 19 goals in a single postseason, currently shared by Reggie Leach and Jari Kurri, the latter of whom set it as an Oiler. Speaking of range, 10 of Hyman's goals have come from right in front of the net.

If there's one player who leveled up to star status in the playoffs, it's Edmonton defenseman Evan Bouchard. He's third in the playoffs in scoring (27 points) while skating 24:33 per game alongside defensive partner Mattias Ekholm.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has 20 points in 18 games, and he is notable for being the longest-serving current Oiler -- 881 games, spanning nine head coaches, a few general managers and plenty of dashed hopes.

All of these players share something in common: They help run one of the most dominant power-play units in NHL history.

How good is the Edmonton power play?

The Oilers convert on over 37% of their power plays, easily the best in the NHL. McDavid acts like a point guard, distributing pucks. Draisaitl, who's tied with McDavid with 14 power-play points, is great on one-timers. Bouchard has a booming shot from the point, and Hyman cleans up pucks in front. Knoblauch calls Nugent-Hopkins "the facilitator," which makes this sound like a heist crew.

While the best advice in slowing the Oilers' power play is to just not allow them to have one, the Panthers are the second-best penalty-killing team in the playoffs (88.2%), coming off a series in which they thwarted 14 of 15 power plays for the Rangers, who were also one of the NHL's best teams with the man advantage.

Incidentally, the best penalty-killing team in the playoffs? The Oilers, at 93.9%.

What's the key to victory for both teams?

For the Panthers, it's to take away the time and space for McDavid and Draisaitl to operate, while not allowing them chances to score on the power play. It's a recipe that worked against the Rangers in the conference finals, to the point that New York's best offensive players said they were playing more conservatively out of fear of making a mistake against Florida. Then, if that fails, relying on Bobrovsky to be the last line of defense.

For the Oilers, it's just the opposite: If they're on the road to victory, McDavid and Draisaitl are driving the bus. Yes, they'll need Skinner to stay strong and will require contributions from other players, but at the end of the day, the Stanley Cup will be won or lost on the performance of their two stars.

Whether it's the Panthers as a franchise or McDavid and Draisaitl as generational stars, someone's earning their first sip from the Stanley Cup this month. And that makes for a very exciting series.