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Analyzing Florida’s deadly forecheck, and what the Oilers must do to win the Stanley Cup

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Photo credit:© Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
1 month ago
On November 9, 2023, the Edmonton Oilers lost 3-2 to the San Jose Sharks. On that day, the Oilers held a 2-9-1 record, tying San Jose for dead last in the National Hockey League.
212 days later, the Oilers will play in the Stanley Cup Finals.
As Edmonton looks to win their first cup in the Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl era, it’s truly been a roller-coaster of a season for the Oilers. After hitting rock bottom back in early November, Edmonton now holds the opportunity to win it all.
They will play the Florida Panthers, who reach the finals for the second consecutive season. In the 2023 playoffs, they lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games – this year, they look to avoid being the first NHL team to lose consecutive cup finals since the Boston Bruins in 1977 and 1978.
Without any further ado, here’s a preview of this year’s cup finals, featuring an analysis of Florida’s major strength, and what Edmonton must do to emerge victorious.
*All on-ice stats via Natural Stat Trick, all microstats via AllThreeZones unless stated otherwise

Diving deep into Florida’s playing style – specifically their forecheck

During the six-day break between Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals and Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, I decided to take a deeper look into Florida’s style of play. 
I went back and rewatched every single one of Florida’s goals for and against at 5-on-5 from the first three rounds of the 2024 playoffs, and categorized them into four different shot types – rush, forecheck, cycle, and faceoffs. Here are the results:
Here’s how I defined each category: a rush shot is a shot that occurs within ~6 seconds of a controlled zone entry, a forecheck shot is a shot that occurs within ~4-5 seconds of a turnover or a dump-in recovery, a faceoff shot is a shot that occurs within ~6 seconds of a faceoff win, while a cycle shot is any other shot in the offensive zone that does not fit the above categories (in other words, cycle shots come off extended zone time).
The Panthers rank first among all playoff teams in 5v5 goal differential, sitting at +7 (56%) overall. Roughly 40% of all goals come off the rush in the playoffs, and interestingly, Florida is net-even in rush goals, scoring and allowing exactly 10 goals off the rush. 
However, the majority of Florida’s damage at 5-on-5 has come off the forecheck. Florida has scored 11 forecheck goals and allowed just 5, equating to an outstanding 69 percent forecheck goal differential. 
Let’s go through some video examples, starting with a clip from the first round of the playoffs in which Florida won in five games over the Tampa Bay Lighting:

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Watch the first, second and fourth goals of Game 3. In technicality, the first goal is officially categorized as a cycle goal by definition, but the play begins with a failed exit by Tampa’s skaters. Florida keeps the puck in, maintains possession, and scores.
On the second goal, Anthony Duclair fails to properly retrieve a loose puck and get the puck out of the defensive zone – instead, Florida’s aggressiveness once again causes a failed exit attempt, and Sam Reinhart makes the Lightning pay. Finally, on the fourth goal, Gustav Forsling starts a breakout up the ice, and dumps it deep into the offensive zone. Tampa fails to properly retrieve the dump-in, as Florida recovers the puck and quickly strikes yet again.

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Here is an example from the second round, in which Florida won in six games over the Boston Bruins. The play begins with another dump-in by Florida. Jeremy Swayman stops the dump-in behind the net and moves it to Parker Wotherspoon, but two Florida forecheckers and a lack of support from Boston’s forwards results in a turnover. Montour keeps the puck in, and Lorentz tips Montour’s shot to tie the game.

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Finally, take a look at Florida’s eventual series-winning goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Rangers. Anton Lundell blocks Artemi Panarin’s shot, and clears the puck out of the zone. Eetu Luostarinen beats Rangers defenceman K’Andre Miller to the loose puck, and Vladimir Tarasenko finishes the play with a goal off a superb royal-road pass from Lundell. Once again, another goal beginning from a puck recovery.
All-in-all, this is nothing new for Paul Maurice’s Panthers team. In the 2023 playoffs, Mike Kelly of SportLogIQ made an excellent analysis of Florida’s forecheck, explaining how the Panthers significantly increased their dump-in rate following the arrival of Maurice, and how they excelled at recovering those dump-ins and forcing turnovers. Per Kelly, the Panthers had a +21 differential in terms of goals scored within 5 seconds of a turnover in the 2022-23 regular-season, first in the league. Heading into the 2023 finals, their turnover goal differential was +10, still ranking atop all playoff teams.
“Mitigate risk by giving up the puck with a plan to get it back,” said Kelly, a line which nicely summarizes Florida’s style of play.
In regards to this past regular-season, here’s a graph visualizing how each team ranked in terms of shots off the rush compared to shots off the forecheck/cycle, using Corey Sznajder’s AllThreeZones tracking project:
No team averaged more shots off the forecheck/cycle this season than Florida. This is not a surprise, as the Panthers ranked second in the league in forecheck pressures per hour, and first in dump-in recoveries per hour. In particular, Aleksander Barkov ranked first in the league among all skaters in shots off the forecheck/cycle, averaging a rate of 21.6 – the league average was 8.53.
Florida certainly has players that can score off the rush, but a huge chunk of their offence revolves around their ability to force turnovers, recover loose pucks, and strike quickly. They consistently look to capitalize on the errors of opposition teams.
The Panthers’ ability to defend the forecheck also deserves credit, as they’ve allowed just five goals off the forecheck in these playoffs at 5-on-5. In the regular-season, they ranked 8th in successful zone exits per hour, and had the 6th fewest botched defensive zone retrievals per hour. The Panthers excel at moving the puck up the ice under opposition forecheck pressure effectively and efficiently, largely due to consistently excellent puck support from their forwards.

So, what are the keys to success for the Oilers?

        1. Win the rush game, and limit Florida’s damage off the forecheck
Now, the Panthers are by no means a weak rush team in any sense. In the regular season, they allowed the fewest rush shots per hour among all teams, and ranked first in zone entry denial percentage. Florida’s defence is excellent at aggressively defending and denying the blueline on opposition rush attempts.
But, as mentioned previously, the Panthers are net-even in total rush goal differential in these playoffs. With Florida ranking as the best team in the league off the forecheck in the past two regular seasons and playoffs, it will be a difficult task for the Oilers to out-score the Panthers off the forecheck, which is why winning the series off the rush could be crucial to Edmonton’s success.
In no particular order, the five most dangerous players in the league off the rush are Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Jack Hughes, Nikita Kucherov, and Leon Draisaitl – the Oilers possess two of the top-five.
While the Lightning, Bruins, and Rangers are all well above-average at generating rush offence, the Panthers have yet to face a team with dynamic top talent such as the Oilers. Sergei Bobrovsky has played well, but compared to other shot types, he is not as strong at stopping shots off the rush – this is a potential weakness that Edmonton’s superstars need to take advantage of. 
At the same time, the Oilers must find a way to defend against Florida’s forecheck. Now, Edmonton’s defence is not exactly built to defend an aggressive forecheck such as Florida’s; Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm are really the team’s only defencemen with an established ability of consistently moving the puck out of the defensive zone under pressure, which is why strong forward support will be critical.
Edmonton as a team still has the ability to make clean, efficient breakouts. Here’s two examples from Game 4 of the WCF against a Dallas Stars squad with a very strong forecheck of their own:

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The first play begins with a zone clear by the Stars. Under forecheck pressure, Kulak retrieves the puck and moves it to Draisaitl, who successfully maneuvers around Mason Marchment and passes it out of the defensive zone. Darnell Nurse enters the offensive zone, and Ryan McLeod ultimately scores off Corey Perry’s shot. McLeod, Nurse and Perry get the points on the goal, but it all began from a Kulak retrieval and a Draisaitl exit under pressure in the defensive zone. Great five-man-effort on this goal.
On the second play, Draisaitl retrieves a loose puck following a Dylan Holloway shot block in the defensive zone. Draisaitl makes another nifty play around Dallas’ forecheckers, and moves it to Ekholm, who then moves it out of the zone, eventually leading to a dangerous look off the rush from Draisaitl. Once again, another scoring chance starting with a controlled zone exit.
For the Oilers to win this series, breaking the puck out of the zone under Florida’s aggressive forecheck pressure, and turning those breakouts into rush chances, will be crucial to their success. All twelve forwards must consistently support the defenders down low and along the boards in the defensive zone. There will be heavily reliance on Ekholm and Bouchard to continue their elite zone exit abilities, while this series will be a significant test for Darnell Nurse, who is expected to be reunited with Cody Ceci on the second pair for Game 1, a decision carrying heavy risk.
        2. Defend leads – don’t sit back!
In the regular season, the Oilers ranked first in the league with a 57 percent expected goal differential, while the Panthers ranked fifth at 54 percent. In these playoffs, the Panthers rank first at 55 percent, while the Oilers have declined to 49.5 percent.
Did the Oilers suddenly get worse at driving possession and scoring chances in the playoffs at 5-on-5? At raw glance, it seems so, but if you split each team’s metrics by game state, it shows a revealing story.
When the score is tied or when the teams are trailing in a game, the Oilers are just as good, if not even better than the Panthers at 5v5, sitting at an excellent 56 percent expected goal differential. But, the discrepancy between the two squads occurs when they are leading.
When Florida has a lead, they do not sit back. The Panthers continue to control possession and scoring chances, holding a strong 53 percent expected goal differential. On the other hand, Edmonton sits at an abysmal 42 percent expected goal share when leading, thus explaining the gap between each team’s metrics.
To me, this shows that Edmonton certainly has the ability to keep up with Florida at 5-on-5, but they simply don’t play up to their best when protecting a lead. Far too often, they resort to sloppy breakouts and zone entries when leading in a game, sitting back defensively and not continuously pushing for more offence.
In the 2023 playoffs, the Oilers lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round. They held the lead at some point in all six games against Vegas, but won just two of them. In the current playoffs, Edmonton’s struggles at defending leads cost them Game 1 against Vancouver in the second round, and nearly cost them Game 7. Even against Dallas, they blew a multi-goal lead in Game 3, and played quite poorly at 5v5 in Game 6 after holding a 2-0 lead, ultimately winning due to a phenomenal effort by Skinner.
Simply put, they have to be better in this facet against Florida. Don’t sit back when you get the lead – keep pushing for more.
        3. Dominance of special teams must continue, while the bottom-six have to improve at 5v5
Here’s a look at Edmonton’s goal differential split into three different sections:
Interestingly, Edmonton has scored 40 goals at even-strength, and allowed 40 against, equating to an exact net-even goal differential. But, they hold a league-leading +17 total goal differential due to their historic special teams.
The Oilers have operated at an excellent 37% power-play percentage and an outstanding 94% penalty-kill percentage, first in the league in both categories. Their dominant PP is far from a shock, but elite penalty-killing is what has been a massive difference in comparison to prior seasons.
In the Western Conference Finals against the Dallas Stars, they did not allow a single goal on the PK, while they scored a short-handed goal – put differently, Edmonton’s penalty-kill outscored Dallas’ power-play.
Florida has the second-best PK% in the league, which was a critical factor in their victory over the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals. New York’s power-play scored five goals in four games against the Washington Capitals in the first round, and five goals in six games against the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round, but just one goal in six games against Florida.
Edmonton’s greatest strength is their special teams. If they want to win this series, their special teams must continue to be special.
The other revealing detail from the visual above is Edmonton’s bottom-six. The team has been out-scored 7 to 14 without McDavid and Draisaitl at 5-on-5, equating to an exact 1:2 ratio and an overall 33 percent goal differential. In comparison, Florida has out-scored opponents 17 to 11 without their top-two centers in Barkov and Bennett, a substantially superior 60 percent goal share. Now, the Panthers’ expected goal share without their top centers is 48 percent, so you can expect some regression, but nonetheless, with McDavid and Draisaitl eating up the minutes against Barkov and Tkachuk’s lines respectively, Edmonton’s depth scoring must be better.
Kris Knoblauch made some interesting line-up decisions during practice on Friday. Adam Henrique will center a line with Mattias Janmark and Connor Brown, while Ryan McLeod will center Warren Foegele and Corey Perry. I’m personally not a fan of reuniting McLeod and Foegele due to their inability to finish their chances on a line together, but I like the idea from the coaching staff. Henrique and McLeod each centering their own lines in the bottom-six does spread out the lineup, potentially giving them a better chance at combating Florida’s bottom-six. I will be fascinated to see if this continues.
        4. Win the goaltending battle
Edmonton’s skaters deserve significant credit for their penalty-killing, but of course, Stuart Skinner has unquestionably played a major role in it. Among all goaltenders with a minimum of 20 minutes played in the 2024 playoffs, Skinner ranks first with a superb 0.932 save percentage on the PK.
Skinner won the goaltending battle in the Western Conference Finals, sporting a 0.919 save percentage and saving 5.3 goals above expected, while Jake Oettinger had a 0.904 save percentage, saving 1.9 goals above expected.
The Oilers have scored more 5-on-5 goals in these playoffs than the Panthers, but it is worth noting that the goaltending quality Florida faced has been significantly better. Facing Andrei Vasilevskiy, Jeremy Swayman, and Igor Shesterkin in three consecutive series is certainly a tall task, but Florida broke through them. It goes without saying that Skinner must play reasonably well.
Edmonton may not even need Skinner to play at some phenomenal level; they simply need reliable goaltending that does not single-handedly cost them games. The team holds a 9-1 record in the 2024 playoffs when Skinner posts a save percentage above 0.890. If the Oilers can get consistently average net-minding in this series? Watch out.
All-in-all, this is shaped to be an extremely tight series. The Oilers and the Panthers will be each other’s greatest test yet in these playoffs. 
Will Florida win their first cup in franchise history this season? Or, will Edmonton break Canada’s cup drought, becoming the first Canadian team to win the cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens? That question will be answered in the upcoming weeks.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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