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The 2024 Cup Final journey: How Panthers, Oilers can manage a 2,541-mile trip between cities

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Published in Hockey
Wednesday, 12 June 2024 10:50

There's a time and a place for everything. The Edmonton Oilers know this because they've spent quite a bit of time these playoffs going all over the continent, whereas the Florida Panthers have had a different experience.

A series that features the largest distance between two teams in a Stanley Cup Final (2,541 miles) is also one that has now become about time. Or rather, it has become about playing games in multiple time zones.

Game 3 on Thursday at Rogers Place in Edmonton will mark the first time this postseason that the Panthers have played a game outside the Eastern Time Zone. It's a drastic contrast compared to the Oilers, who have played games in the East, Central, Mountain and Pacific time zones.

Florida's run throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs saw the Panthers face the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. Edmonton, which plays its home games on Mountain Time, reached the Cup Final after facing the Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars.

"They are playing in every time zone plus the monstrous mileage," said Jonathan Charest, the director of athlete sleep services and a behavior sleep medicine specialist for the Centre for Sleep & Human Performance at the University of Calgary. "I don't think people appreciate what they are pulling off. From a research and scientific perspective, it's incredible."


THE OILERS' PATH is not unprecedented. The Vegas Golden Knights have had a similar path twice recently. The pandemic-adjusted divisions in 2020-21 meant the Golden Knights (who play on PT), faced the Minnesota Wild (CT), Colorado Avalanche (MT) and Montreal Canadiens (ET) in that playoff run. Their Cup run in 2023 saw them play the Winnipeg Jets (CT), Oilers (MT), Stars (CT) and Panthers (ET).

There have been 12 instances since the 1981-82 season in which there was a team that played at least one playoff game in every continental U.S. time zone, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Six of those instances have occurred since the 2000-01 season.

Aside from that 2021 pandemic-altered postseason that saw the creation of four new divisions, the last time an Eastern team played a team in another time zone before the Stanley Cup Final came in 2013, when the Detroit Red Wings had series in the Central and Pacific. The following season saw the NHL realign its teams into four divisions; all 16 teams in the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions play in the Eastern Time Zone. The furthest west any one of those teams will have to travel in the Eastern Conference playoffs is Detroit.

The Western Conference is a bit more expansive. Six of the eight teams in the Central are in the Central Time Zone, while six of the eight Pacific teams play in the Pacific Time Zone. The other four teams play on Mountain Time, including the former Arizona Coyotes franchise that will relocate to Utah.

How often does a Major League Baseball, NBA or NFL team have to play in all four time zones in a single playoff run?

The Elias Sports Bureau's findings showed that it's not that uncommon in the NBA: it has happened five times since the 2009 playoffs. It has happened only once in MLB, and that came last season, with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Denver Broncos are the only team in NFL history to play a playoff game in every time zone, which was back in 1997.

"There's no question that the travel is much tougher in the West," said Seattle Kraken forward Jordan Eberle, who has played in both conferences. "I played in Long Island and most nights, you are in your own bed before midnight if you are on a trip. In the West, in Seattle, we have some long flights. ... Last year, we had to go to Dallas after Colorado and fly there and back for Game 5 and Game 7.

"It's part of the gig. Playoffs itself are a grind, but you don't put more emphasis on travel than there already is."


WHETHER IT'S A private discussion or one with cameras and microphones recording every word, the NHL's travel paradigm is frequently discussed. Most conversations are centered around the frequency of back-to-back games, or how teams in the West face more challenging travel.

A Stanley Cup Final between the Oilers and Panthers is another example of how the time difference works differently for the two teams.

As the NHL's southernmost team with one in-state rival, the Panthers usually have longer flights when they leave home compared to others in the East. But they also played 66 of their 82 regular-season games this season in the Eastern Time Zone. There was one sequence this season from Jan. 24 through March 9 in which they played 19 consecutive games on ET.

Including the playoffs, the Panthers have played 85 of their 102 regular-season and postseason games (83.3%) on ET.

As the NHL's northernmost team, with one in-province rival, Edmonton has some of the longest travel in the NHL. Playing in a time zone that also includes only the Calgary Flames and Avalanche (as well as Utah next season), the Oilers spend quite a bit of time outside their home time zone.

The Oilers played 44 of their 82 regular-season games on MT. Two of those games came in the final month. Their longest stretch of MT games was a six-game homestand from Dec. 6-16.

In the regular season and playoffs combined, the Oilers have played 53 of their 102 games (51.9%) in the Mountain Time Zone.

Charest, who also wrote a 2021 study about the impact of distance and travel in back-to-back games in the NBA, said the Stanley Cup Final presents two scenarios in terms of travel-related advantages.

The first scenario: Eastern teams will have a consistent circadian rhythm going into the Stanley Cup Final because they've spent the first three rounds in one time zone. While they might be fatigued from playing games, they won't have any jet lag and will have traveled fewer miles.

The second scenario: Teams in the Mountain or Pacific time zones have the advantage because Eastern teams will need time for their circadian rhythms to adjust when they travel to those time zones. With Game 3 starting at 6 p.m. MT, it will feel like 8 p.m. for the Panthers, and in the late stages of the game, their body clocks will feel as if it is 10:30 p.m. (when it is actually 8:30 p.m. MT). And that's assuming there's no overtime.

"Playing a high-level sport or any sport at any level at midnight is ludicrous when it comes to thinking you'll be optimal," Charest explained. "To support this very blatant claim, there was a 2013 study about the NFL. There was just one game a week. The data showed West Coast teams do not lose their advantage from a home perspective. ... Whenever Edmonton travels to South Florida, it will feel like 6 p.m. to them. That means they'll be much closer to that peak time performance of that 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. range that we see in most peak Olympic athletes."


EBERLE SAID PLAYERS do think about and talk about travel. But they also acknowledge what Eberle called "amazing" accommodations for the players, and teams taking charter flights when they can, allowing them to more directly travel from city to city as opposed to the challenges that come with flying commercially.

If anything, the biggest issues most players face whenever they are on the road is finding ways to get enough rest before games and practices.

"You look at [playoff travel] like it's another location," Eberle said. "You are going to a place to play two games. You are there for four or five days. You are not getting on a flight after a game like you would in the regular season. That's the big thing. After Game 1, you get to go to a hotel bed and then get ready for Game 2. Or if you are at home, you get to sleep at home. Both teams are going through the same thing."

Eberle said having support staff is important throughout the regular season, and their roles become more vital during the playoffs. Over time, more franchises have made items such as player health and wellness an even greater priority.

When Eberle debuted in 2010 with the Oilers, the team's Elite Prospects page showed they had five people who were dedicated to areas such as athletic training, conditioning and massage therapy. In that same season, a copy of the Panthers' media guide showed they had two athletic trainers and a conditioning coach.

This season, the Oilers have a seven-person staff that features athletic therapists, strength and conditioning coaches, a physical therapist, a massage therapist and a consulting chiropractor. The Panthers have an eight-person staff that includes members of their sports performance department along with athletic trainers, a director of sports performance and rehabilitation, a massage therapist and a director of sports psychology.

"It's an army," Eberle said of the support staff. "Not just with trying to help you fall asleep but it starts the moment you get to the hotel. Throughout the season, you have a physiotherapist to get work done. You have tubs and every amenity possibly that gets you ready to play. ... You have more than enough resources that if you need something, they can get it done."

Charest said that's what makes the off days between games "foundational" for both teams when it comes to recovery. He said the Oilers have likely used this postseason to develop a strategy around when to sleep and when to eat, because they've become used to playing across multiple time zones.

For the Panthers to adjust, they may need to revert back to what they did in the regular season whenever they played two games in a short span against western teams.

Back in February, Panthers coach Paul Maurice and defenseman Aaron Ekblad spoke with ESPN for a story about the demands of back-to-backs. Ekblad said the Panthers' support staff have gone to great lengths, providing cold tubs on every trip to provide the team with another form of treatment.

Maurice said his time coaching the Winnipeg Jets during that truncated 2020-21 season allowed him to appreciate the value of staying overnight on the front end of a back-to-back rather than immediately flying to the next city. The Panthers practiced in South Florida on Wednesday before flying to Edmonton ahead of Game 3 on Thursday.

"How they adapt to a two-hour jet lag. That strategy will be massively important," Charest said. "It could take a toll as the series gets longer. With the recovery strategy, you will see it play a role with Games 5, 6 and 7."

It's another reason why Charest said that a team's support staff should receive even more credit for what they are doing this time of year.

"They must have someone looking into their travel schedule and their recovery schedule," Charest said. "They have people to tell them, 'Guys, you should be sleeping, napping and resting within these windows. You should be eating, snacking, practicing, pregame within these windows.' They must have someone giving them some sort of guidance. It would be almost impossible to sustain a level of high performance for that long. The playoffs start in April and the Cup will be handed out near the end of June. That's three months of high performance. That's not sustainable without a good travel plan in place."

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