Panthers-Golden Knights Final Ensures a First-Time Cup Winner

Every team’s ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup. But there is a reason that it is considered the hardest prize to claim in sports. The NHL playoffs are a gauntlet, and it takes a combination of incredible skill, unmatched durability, and more than a dash of luck to survive the playoffs and emerge as champion. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that 11 NHL teams — more than a third of the League — have never reached the mountaintop and seen their names written on the bottom rung of Lord Stanley’s Cup. But now that the Final is set, that number is guaranteed to shrink to 10, as neither the Florida Panthers nor the Vegas Golden Knights have climbed hockey’s highest summit successfully in their franchise’s history. Let’s take a look at how these two teams got this far this season, then take a trip down memory lane to see their previous closest call.

Vegas’s Path to the Final

These two teams had very different 2022-23 seasons. The Golden Knights, who shockingly missed the postseason for the first time in franchise history last season, sailed back to the top of the Pacific Division. Even despite the loss of Robin Lehner, incoming head coach Bruce Cassidy proved to be a goalie whisperer once again, cobbling together a seventh-best team save percentage (SV%) from relative unknowns or career backups like Logan Thompson, Adin Hill, and Laurent Brossoit. Led by a finally healthy and resurgent Jack Eichel, Vegas finished with 111 points to lead not only the Pacific Division but the entire Western Conference.

Jack Eichel Vegas Golden Knights
Jack Eichel, Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

vegas entered the playoffs with a newly-returned Mark Stone but with Thompson injured and Brossoit in net. Their first-round matchup against the overpowered Winnipeg Jets ended quickly, in just five games, giving them time to prepare for the loaded Edmonton Oilers. They managed to slow down Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and take advantage of Edmonton’s young goaltender Stuart Skinner, and win the series in six games. Then, against the Dallas Stars, they sailed to a commanding 3-0 series lead, which included manhandling Jake Oettinger and driving Jamie Benn to an absolutely insane suspension. But the Stars managed to win two games and make a series of it, before Vegas manhandled them in Game 6 with a 6-0 victory. During the series, Adin Hill continued his stellar play, and seems locked in as the Golden Knights’ #1 heading into the Stanley Cup Final.

Vegas’s Closest Call

We don’t have to think back too far to remember Vegas’s closest call with destiny. After all, they’ve only been a franchise since the 2017-18 season, and no one will remember their unbelievable inaugural run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. It was remarkable: an expansion team reaching the Stanley Cup Final. It gave Vegas an immediate taste for success and kept them an aggressive contender during all the seasons since. But they were not enough for the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin — who themselves were a first-time winner of the Stanley Cup.

Related: It’s Good the Vegas Golden Knights Didn’t Win the Cup

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In five seasons since then, the Golden Knights have reached the penultimate round of the playoffs three times, but this is the first time they’ve been back to the Cup Final since 2018. They will look to make history by becoming the fastest franchise to hoist the Stanley Cup, unseating the Philadelphia Flyers, who needed seven seasons from their creation (1967-68) to their victory (1973-74).

Florida’s Path to the Final

Florida’s path could not look much more different from Vegas’s. Last season, they won the Presidents’ Trophy, but fell flat in the second round against the archrival Tampa Bay Lightning. Their lack of grit forced the team to make one of the most shocking trades in NHL history, trading Hart Trophy contender Jonathan Huberdeau and top defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames for budding superstar Matthew Tkachuk. Tkachuk immediately became a star for the Panthers and is even a Hart Trophy Finalist for his contributions to the team. But they still barely crossed the finish line and made it to the playoffs with the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, finishing with just one more point than the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Matthew Tkachuk Florida Panthers
Matthew Tkachuk, Florida Panthers (Photo by Josh Lavallee/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Panthers had to rely on a red-hot Alex Lyon down the stretch to even make the playoffs. And he entered the postseason with the titanic task of helping Florida overcome the Boston Bruins, coming off the greatest regular season in NHL history. But Lyon would only play in three playoff games, before giving way to Sergei Bobrovsky, who has now become the story of the playoffs.

Bobrovsky helped the Panthers complete an unbelievable comeback from the brink of elimination against the Bruins, and his unparalleled play in rounds two and three made the Panthers’ victories over the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Carolina Hurricanes look easy. He currently has an 11-2-0 playoff record, with a .935 SV% and a 2.21 goals-against average (GAA), along with 14.4 goals saved above average (GSAA). He would be the runaway favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy if Tkachuk hadn’t become the breakout athlete in all of sports over the last few weeks. Those two have been the dominant forces that have propelled Florida to their first Stanley Cup Final since their third season in the league.

Florida’s Closest Call

The 1995-96 season feels like a long time ago, but few will forget the Panthers’ last improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final — not least because of the rats. In an October game against the Calgary Flames, then-captain Scott Mellanby killed a rat in the dressing room and went on to score two goals. It was nicknamed the “Rat Trick,” and the rat became a symbol of Florida’s success throughout the season — so much so that the fan would shower the ice with rats after Panthers goals. The support powered Florida through a grueling seven-game series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Conference Final, but the Panthers were no match for the juggernaut Avalanche, who beat them in four games. The Panthers have waited 27 years to return to the Stanley Cup Final, and they’re looking to make the most of their second opportunity.

Who Will Make History?

The Cup Final now comes down to two teams relying on improbable heroes to bring them their first-ever Stanley Cup. American superstar forwards will square off in Tkachuk and Eichel. And anyone who had Hill and Bobrovsky as Stanley Cup goalies on their preseason predictions needs to buy a lottery ticket immediately. But it doesn’t matter the road they took to get here, how long they’ve waited, or the players they’ve relied on to bring them to the Promised Land. What matters is winning the next four games. One team will and will go onto NHL nirvana. The other will be bridesmaids once again. It should be an exciting final, and neutral fans are guaranteed a first-time champion. It doesn’t get much better than this.