The Stanley Cup Final is here. The two teams in the Final had two different journeys but made remarkable playoff runs to put themselves in this position. The Florida Panthers were the final team to secure a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference while the Vegas Golden Knights finished the season with the best record in the Western Conference. However, the two teams are only four wins away from winning the greatest trophy in sports.
This series looks to be a close and entertaining one with multiple intriguing matchups. There are a few in particular that will determine who ends up winning the series. Will the Panthers control the pace of play? Can the Golden Knights turn defense into instant offense? All the small details will go a long way in deciding the winner in what should be a Stanley Cup Final to remember.
Golden Knights’ Outlet Passes vs. Panthers’ Neutral Zone Defense
The Golden Knights are exceptional at starting up the offense with outlet passes. Their defensemen will create a turnover in the defensive zone and immediately send the puck up ice to a forward who creates an instant odd-man rush scoring chance. Led by Alex Pietrangelo, Brayden McNabb, and a great, well-rounded defensive unit, they can clear the puck out of their zone and send it into the offensive zone to create quick scoring opportunities. It’s allowed the Golden Knights to put together a great playoff run as they’ve taken advantage of the mistakes of their opponents and gashed them for quick goals.
The Golden Knights look to use the outlet passes to kickstart their offense in the Final but standing in their way is the Panthers’ defense. Specifically, the Panthers’ forwards are great at clogging up passing lanes and intercepting passes in the neutral zone, making it difficult for teams to start up the offense following a turnover. Aleksander Barkov, who won the Selke Trophy in 2021, thrives off of turnovers where he can intercept a pass and immediately start up the rush the other way. With the Golden Knights trying to send the puck up the ice, Barkov will be a difference-maker in this series as one of the league’s best defensive centers.
The winner of this matchup will control each game as they’ll establish a strong offensive zone presence. Additionally, if the Golden Knights struggle to move the puck they will be forced to adapt and either chip the puck out of the zone or try to carry it out. Both methods for zone exits are out of their comfort zone and play in the Panthers’ favor. Likewise, if the Golden Knights are starting up the rush off of turnovers with quick passes, the Panthers will be playing from behind throughout the series.
Which Goaltender Remains Hot?
Sergei Bobrovsky had a rough regular season. He had a .901 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.07 goals-against average (GAA) on 1,466 shots with minus-4.6 goals saved above average (GSAA). In the playoffs, he’s been on fire, with a .935 SV%, 2.21 GAA on 504 shots with 14.5 GSAA to carry the Panthers to the Final. When he signed a seven-year, $70 million contract in the 2019 offseason, there was plenty of skepticism about the deal the Panthers made. At 34 years old, he’s showing why he was worth the massive contract as he’s carrying the team in a deep playoff run.
For the Golden Knights, Adin Hill was an afterthought. He started only 25 games this season and wasn’t even the starting goaltender when the playoff started. However, after Laurent Broissoit struggled in Game 2 of the second round against the Edmonton Oilers, Hill stepped up and has never looked back. He has a .937 SV% and a 2.07 GAA on 333 shots with 10.4 GSAA, propelling the Golden Knights to the Final and giving them no urge whatsoever to turn to Jonathan Quick, who they acquired at the deadline for a Cup run. Instead, the team is relying on a journeyman who is playing on his third team in three years but suddenly has a chance to lift the Stanley Cup.
Both goaltenders have been playing at a high level at the right time and the question is which one can put together one more great series to propel their team to the title. Both Bobrovsky and Hill can unravel at any point but entering the series, they both look poised to play well and keep games low-scoring. While the series won’t be a goaltending duel, it will ask Bobrovsky and Hill to make a few big saves in the clutch and step up to make a difference in the one-goal games.
Goals at the Point
The Golden Knights and Panthers both have exceptional defensive units that can both limit opponents and start up the offense. The defenses will play a pivotal role in this series but most importantly, the skaters will have to make a difference from the point.
The Golden Knights have Pietrangelo leading the way, scoring 11 goals and 43 assists this season while adding a goal and eight assists in the playoffs. However, he needs to start shooting the puck more on the net, especially against the Panthers. Despite leading the unit with points, he only has one goal in this playoff run and needs to pressure Bobrovsky to make saves on shots through traffic and stop second-chance shots. Likewise, Shea Theodore, Alec Martinez, and Zach Whitecloud, who have combined for a goal and 16 assists, must create scoring chances at the blue line and help open up the offense.
The Panthers have gotten a spark from their defensive unit whenever they’ve needed it. Brandon Montour saved their season with his goal in Game 7 of the first round in the final minute to force overtime, allowing them to win the game and complete the stunning series upset against the Boston Bruins. Additionally, Montour has scored six goals and three assists to lead the unit and add a scoring presence to the Panthers’ offense. He has to continue playing at a high level but Gustav Forsling and Aaron Ekblad, who have combined for three goals and nine assists during this playoff run, must step up from the point.
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This series has the potential to become a low-scoring one where scoring chances are hard to come by. Having playmakers at the point will go a long way and a big shot from the blue line can determine a game and ultimately the series.
Can the Golden Knights Speed Things Up?
The Panthers controlled the series against the Toronto Maple Leafs by controlling the pace of the games. They slowed things down, played a more physical brand of hockey, and forced the Maple Leafs to try to win with defense and a hard-hitting style. It gave the Panthers an edge, especially when Matthew Tkachuk was on the ice, and allowed them to easily win the series in five games. Similarly, against the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final, the Panthers never wavered from the slower style of play and it allowed them to sweep the series and advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Golden Knights haven’t overwhelmed teams with their speed but they’ve proven they can play at a fast pace if needed. Against the Oilers, they matched the speed and skill of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to win the series in six games. The matchup saw Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault, two of the team’s fastest skaters, combine for eight goals and nine assists. Likewise, against the Dallas Stars, the Golden Knights’ hot starts fueled by their fast-paced play allowed them to take over the series, especially in Game 3 and Game 6 where they combined for 10 goals to close out the series.
The Golden Knights will try to gash the Panthers on the rush and take advantage of open ice. To win this series, they will force the Panthers, who have won by slowing the games down, to play a speed-based game where goals are up and scoring chances are at a premium. Under new head coach Bruce Cassidy, the Golden Knights have proved they can adapt to any opponent they face, and against the Panthers, they will try to control the pace of the series.
Eichel vs. Tkachuk
The two biggest stars in this series. Both Eichel and Tkachuk are finally proving to the national audience that they are among the best in the game. Eichel, after years of playing for Buffalo Sabres teams that would miss the playoffs, was finally traded to the Golden Knights and is not only playing at a high level but leading the team to the Cup. Tkachuk was similarly traded after multiple seasons with the Calgary Flames to the Panthers and has both changed the identity of the team and prepared them for a deep playoff run. Between the two stars, one of them will end up hoisting the Cup and possibly win the Conn Smythe Trophy as well.
Eichel and Tkachuk have shown they can take over a game at any point. Eichel does it with speed and skill, using his scoring instincts to create goals where they otherwise wouldn’t be available. In Game 2 of the Western Conference Final, he assisted the game-tying goal in the third period with a pass from behind the net that forced overtime and allowed the Golden Knights to win the game, 3-2. Tkachuk, meanwhile, takes over games with power and versatility as he impacts the game in a multitude of ways. He’s made the Panthers a better team defensively with his forecheck and hard hits along the boards, but has also stepped up in the offensive zone, scoring nine goals and 12 assists during the playoff run.
The question is which player will step up in the Final and carry their team. Whether it’s multiple goals in one game or consistent great play in the series, one of the two stars will elevate their team to allow them to win the Cup.
Other Things That Will Determine the Stanley Cup Winner
Depth will play a big role in this series. While the star players are going to make the biggest impact, the skaters on the later lines and pairings will be the difference in some of these games. The Golden Knights have relied on middle-six forwards stepping up all season and now, they hope Michael Amadio or Nicolas Roy can add a spark to the offense. The Panthers hope Anton Lundell or Nick Cousins, who scored the overtime winner in Game 5 of the second round, can find the back of the net at the right time.
Another interesting factor in this series will be the coaching styles of Cassidy and Paul Maurice, two head coaches that interestingly enough, were hired in the 2022 offseason. Cassidy has made the Golden Knights a balanced team but also one that plays according to the situation at hand. When the team is up by a goal with four minutes to go, everyone on the ice knows exactly what they need to do to close out the game and similarly, if they are trailing by two goals early, they know how to respond. Maurice has made the Panthers a more defensive-minded team, but more importantly, has brought out the best in his players. He is a motivator that hopes to will his team especially if the series goes the distance.
In the end, the Stanley Cup Final should be an entertaining series and one to remember. The winner will take home their first title in franchise history and put hockey on the map for a small, non-traditional market, showing how far the league has come in terms of growing and expanding the game.