The Vegas Golden Knights wouldn’t back down. They stood their ground in Game 1 of the 2023 Stanley Cup Final against the relentless toughness that has been the identity of the Florida Panthers throughout these playoffs.
The team that plays their home games on the edge of the Everglades has had alligator blood this postseason – refusing to die against top-tier competition – but they may have met their physical match when it comes to the Golden Knights. It was evident during a first-period scrum when three Vegas players plus goaltender Adin Hill converged on Panthers forward Nick Cousins. Hill landed a blocker blow to Cousins’ head, but the Panthers got the only minor penalty.
“It was tough,” coach Paul Maurice said. “On the gradation of tough, like root canal to lumpy oatmeal, it was closer to the root canal of toughness.”
All dentist jokes aside, the point here is that the Golden Knights were ready to rumble. Even if their coach had reservations about how his team would respond to the extracurricular stuff after whistles given they had some recent time off.
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“We had success right out of the gate,” Bruce Cassidy said. “The time off, to me, you may or may not lose a bit of your competitive instincts and by that, I mean pinches and puck battles below the goal line, stuff that’s hard to replicate in practice.”
Vegas showed no signs of not being ready. The Panthers sniff out every opportunity to initiate contact during and after play. There is not one stoppage that is not accompanied by one or more Cats seeking out an opposing player to hit or punch. It is the kind of mentality that has worn down the teams that they have defeated, but if Game 1 is any indication, Florida may have finally met their equal when it comes to physicality.
Panthers Play on Physical Edge May Hurt Them
No one would suggest that the Panthers should abandon what got them to the Stanley Cup Final. Yet, as the game within the game played out last night at T-Mobile Arena, it became apparent that the Panthers’ ability to stir it up might be an approach that won’t work as well in this series.
“We don’t get rattled. We don’t change. We stick to what makes us successful,” Golden Knights captain Mark Stone said. “We can’t let the momentum swings get too drastic.”
A prime example of Vegas’ ability to stay composed and not succumb to the Panthers applying their abundance of sandpaper came with a few minutes left in the third period when the outcome was already determined. Gritty forward and playoff maestro Matthew Tkachuk sucker punched defenseman Nicolas Hague in the face, who was being held in a straight jacket by Sam Bennett. Hague’s response: a stoic grin.
“We played our composed game,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “We didn’t get too heated like they did at the end. I think that’s winning hockey for us” (from ‘Analysis: Golden Knights brought the flash, Panthers acted like trash in Game 1’, Las Vegas Sun, 6/4/23).
The Golden Knights’ mindset when it comes to dealing with the Panthers’ willingness to throw the body around will serve them well as the series gets longer.
“We’re just trying to play the right way and be disciplined,” Marchessault said. “Tonight, we were able to be the better team.”
Tkachuk got tossed for his shenanigans. Sure, he was frustrated, and, yes, he plays on the edge from puck drop, but that seemed to clash with Vegas’ style and didn’t accomplish much, if anything. It’s as if the Golden Knights channeled the Dark Knight. Tkachuk playing the part of the Joker – cackling and using needless violence – and Vegas calmly waiting for the circus act to finish. The Golden Knights, like Batman, can absorb the punishment without becoming sidetracked.
“We’ve done it all year. We’ll stick up for one another but it’s also the maturity of this group, just being able to kind of hang back a bit,” said Hill. “It’s like when they do that stuff, they’re going to try and instigate us. We don’t need to react. We need to stay focused on the game plan.”
The consistent funny stuff by the Panthers after each stoppage showed the Golden Knights’ calmness and poise in the series opener. Vegas is tough, but they are smart about it.
Golden Knights Did the Little Things Right
The Panthers have had success this postseason with a strong forecheck that has flustered the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes, but the Golden Knights were able to avoid most giveaways in their own end for much of Game 1.
Vegas was not hemmed in for any large stretches during the series opener and much of that was due to small gaps between their defensemen and forwards. The Golden Knights were able to chip pucks out without taking hits from the Panthers below their goal line, which helped Vegas stay out of the penalty box for the most part. The Golden Knights played a smart, disciplined game to counter the physical nature of the Panthers.
“I think it showed late in the game where we were able to keep our discipline and get to the end of the game. As the series goes on, there’s opportunities to be physical and get squared away within the rules of the law,” Cassidy said. “I think tonight was a good example from our guys when it comes to discipline but it’s been there all year. We’re not a heavily penalized team. We’re good in that area.”
The Golden Knights also clogged up the middle of the ice and kept the Panthers to the outside. Vegas blocked 16 shots after leading the entire NHL in that category during the regular season. They also avoided taking that one big, open-ice hit that can swing momentum from players like Bennett, who has punished the opposition regularly during these playoffs with massive bodychecks.
Vegas is the type of team that can match the toughness of the Panthers by not being rattled by it.
“We do have a veteran group and I think it showed late in the game when we were sort of able to keep our discipline and get to the finish line,” Cassidy said.
For the Panthers, it might be better to play tough, but crisp hockey and to be more selective on when to exert the visceral nature of their game plan. Because, if Game 1 is any indication of what’s to come, the Golden Knights won’t be pushed around.