STANLEY CUP FINALS PREVIEW
2023-05-31 · 3 min read · NHL/Hockey
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports | USA Today
We are finally here and I’m straight amped. The Vegas Golden Knights and the Florida Panthers will square off with the pinnacle of hockey achievements on the line; the Stanley Cup. Both these teams have appeared in one Finals before and they didn't do well. The Panthers made the 1996 finals against the Avalanche and were promptly swept. Vegas made the finals in its inaugural 2017-18 season, before being handled by the Washington Capitals in five games. This time around they took opposite paths with Vegas being one of the favourites to emerge from the West, while Florida snuck into the playoffs as an eighth seed and upset arguably the top three teams in the East on their way here. Let's take a look at each team and see what we think.
The Panthers have had a remarkable playoff run, from coming back against the NHL’s all-time best regular season team to the resurgence of Sergei Bobrovsky. Florida's style of play has had a major role as well. Their ultra-aggressive relentless forecheck has consistently put the opposing teams on the defensive; allowing the Panthers to control the style of play and force costly mistakes. The Panthers have also been excellent on special teams, as they have one of the playoff top power plays at 27.9 % of its opportunities (12-for-43) in 16 games. Their penalty kill seems lacklustre at first as they have given up 15 goals on 52 occasions (71.2 percent), but 11 of those goals were allowed in the first round against the Bruins. The Panthers have only given up two power-play goals in both the five-game series vs the Leafs and the four games against the Hurricanes; going 8-for-8 on the PK through in their last three games. On top of this, the Panthers come into the finals riding a five-game winning streak and they are an outstanding 6-0 in overtime during the playoffs; having won nine straight OT playoff games since 2021.
The Golden Knights have an incredibly balanced team which plays a responsibility and does a great job controlling the puck. They get offence from all levels, with six players having at least 14 points this postseason; with seven having at least 11. Vegas does most of their damage at five-on-five, while doing a good job of forcing penalties and avoiding taking them. This is important as they struggle on special teams with an uninspiring 18.5 % rate on the power play (10-for-54). Worse yet their penalty kill is at 63.0 percent, which is 14th of the 16 playoff teams; it is crucial they continue to not take bad penalties especially late in games. A key factor for the Knights is the outstanding but often not readily discussed play of William Karlsson, who has been one of the league's premier defence forwards during this postseason. The young Swede was all over Connor McDavid in the second round, seemingly getting a better handle on him by the game (if McDavid can be handled). Against the Stars he stymied the postseason leading scoring Roope Hintz, holding him to just two assists in the final five games of the Western Conference Finals. Karlsson is also fourth on the Knights with 14 points and leads them with 10 goals.
Let's evaluate each team's goaltenders and game-breakers. For the Panthers it's two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky, who you would be forgiven for forgetting he didn't even come into the playoffs as the starter. Alex Lyon got the nod for the Panthers first three games against Boston. Bobrovsky came in and replaced Lyon during Game 3, helping upset the Bruins; who had a 3-1 series lead before the Panthers rallied to advance. Bobrovsky is 11-2 with a stellar 2.21 GAA and .935 save percentage in 14 games. For Vegas they will turn to Adin Hill, who has been the starter since Laurent Brossoit sustained a lower-body injury early in Game 3 against the Oilers. Hill, one of five goalies used by the Golden Knights this season, was initially fourth on the depth chart behind Robin Lehner, Logan Thompson and Brossoit. In his first playoffs the 27-year-old has gone 7-3 with a stellar 2.07 goals-against average and .937 save percentage since taking over.
Each team has a bevy of talented players with Vegas being particularly deep. If I had to pick a skater from each squad it has to be Jack Eichel and Matthew Tkachuk. Eichel has found a home in his second season with the Golden Knights, silencing doubts that have followed him for years. Now in his first ever NHL playoffs Eichel is delivering at a high level, leading the Knights with 18 points (six goals, 12 assists) in 17 playoff games. Line mate and Vegas all-time points leader Jonathan Marchessault has had a great playoff run, coming through when needed with three game winners. Matthew Tkachuk meanwhile finished his first season in Florida with a career high 108 points and a Hart trophy nomination. Tkachuk is the playoffs leading scorer left in the playoffs with 21 points and has four game winning goals. Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov is one the league's premier players a two beast when healthy, I expect him to deliver on the biggest stage. If any of these guys go supernova it could be the deciding factor.
Overall, I'm quite torn on picking this series, will the Panthers be empowered by their Cinderella run and see themselves as a team of destiny? Will Vegas be battle hardened into a fine point from a tough playoff run and previous years disappointments? A big factor for me here is have the Panthers and most importantly Bobrovsky cooled during the extended rest sweeping Carolina brought them? Bobrovsky has been outrageous and seems to be getting better as the playoffs go on. Take game 3 of the ECF for example, the Hurricanes outshot the Panthers 32-17 and controlled the puck throughout; but lost 1-0 because Bobrovsky put on a one man show. Without his heroics, the Panthers likely lose to the Boston Bruins in the first round. Since Bobrovsky took over the net in Game 5 of the first round, the Panthers are 12-1. Bobrovsky's redemption run has been simply incredible to watch this postseason. Really Florida’s journey as a whole has been amazing and I'm done picking against them. It has brought me nothing but suffering; especially in round two. Vegas is a balanced team full of vets and brimming with and talent. However, if Bobrovsky can stay hot and their forecheck can keep the pressure on the Knights then the Panthers will grasp their first Stanley Cup.
- My pick - Panthers in 7
Florida set the record for points in an inaugural season (1993-94, 82 points) before being passed by Vegas in their first season (2017-18, 109 points).
By: Chase Howard