It all comes down to this. The Stanley Cup Final between the Vegas Golden Knights vs the Florida Panthers will kick off Saturday, with each team in pursuit of their first Stanley Cup victory. The teams have had very different paths to get to this point. Vegas came into the playoffs as the number one seed in the West and have lived up to the hype, taking out the Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, and Dallas Stars. The Panthers have been the Cinderella story of the 2023 Playoffs, defeating Cup favorites Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Carolina Hurricanes on their way to the finals. Take a look at our biggest keys for the series.
Golden Knights vs Panthers Stanley Cup Final Preview
Both teams have big names up front. Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, and William Karlsson have led the charge for the Golden Knights, while it’s been all Matthew Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov, and Carter Verhaeghe for the Panthers. However, the series may come down to the players on the blue line.
Vegas has played extremely well defensively throughout the playoffs. They’ve handled some of the most impressive offensive teams on the way to the Cup. In each of their series, they’ve been able to limit the top players on the other team. The defencemen have been excellent, but it’s been the contributions from their forwards that have made the difference. Both William Karlsson and Jack Eichel have been noticeable defensively. Look for them to get significant minutes against Tkachuk and Barkov.
The Panthers defence has been important on their march to the Cup. They’ve allowed only 2.68 goals per game in the playoffs, and only six goals against in their sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals. It’s allowed them to keep games close, which has been beneficial for the team. The Panthers are 9-1 in one-goal games throughout the postseason, and 6-0 in overtime. They’ve thrived on that razor-thin margin, and if they can limit the scoring from the Knights, they may be able to hold onto victories.
Hockey might be Canada’s game, but it’s two American stars headlining the series. Jack Eichel and Matthew Tkachuk have led their teams all season, but both have reached another level in the playoffs. Tkachuk has 21 points in the postseason, including three overtime goals. He scored with 4.9 seconds left in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final to complete the sweep and send the Hurricanes packing. He’s scored big, timely goals for the Panthers, and it’s propelled the team past some of the biggest threats in the league.
MATTHEW TKACHUK, ARE YOU KIDDING?! 😱😱😱
— NHL (@NHL) May 25, 2023
On the other side of the coin, Jack Eichel has been equally as important for the Golden Knights. He has six goals and 12 assists in the post season, and while he was held off the scoresheet against the Stars, he did just about everything else. He’s been a difference maker, creating opportunities for his teammates and working on the backcheck to limit opportunities. Both teams will need their stars to step up to pull off the series.
If you’ve been following the Golden Knights, you will know that special teams is not exactly their forte. The power-play has been dismal in the playoffs, with an 18.5% conversion rate. The Panthers’ power-play has been much more impressive, converting on 27.8% of their chances on the man-advantage. Luckily for the Golden Knights, they don’t take a lot of penalties. They were the least penalized team in the regular season, and were able to overcome their special team struggles against the Edmonton Oilers in Round 2. However, special teams is one of the biggest disparities between the teams, and if the Golden Knights could get into trouble if the games get chippier.
Goaltending has been a massive part of each team’s success to this point. Both Adin Hill and Sergei Bobrovsky have been spectacular, putting up numbers that have been game-saving. Hill has a .937 save percentage and 2.07 GAA, while Bobrovsky has been similarly incredible, with a .935 and 2.21 GAA. However, both are massively outplaying their numbers from the regular season. If either of them experience a regression to the mean, it could be disastrous for their teams.
Vegas wins in six. It’ll be a close series, as the teams are similar in their styles and strengths. However, Florida only just started playing this well. Vegas has been playing this consistently since the All-Star break, and their experience should be enough to push them to their first Stanley Cup.
Main Photo: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports