By: Mitchell Fox
In less than two weeks, an NHL franchise will win its first-ever Stanley Cup. That is perhaps the only thing that is certain as the Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers get set to face off in one of the most unorthodox finals in recent memory.
The Golden Knights were the top seed in the Western Conference this year. Despite feeling the absence of Mark Stone for four months and all-star goaltender Logan Thompson since February and having a streaky but strong Edmonton Oilers squad breathing down their neck in the Pacific Division, they earned a favourable first-round matchup with the Winnipeg Jets.
After beating the Jets with relative ease, the Golden Knights found a way to make the Connor and Leon Show appear less lethal than McDavid and Draisaitl’s (and Evan Bouchard’s) nearly two-point-per-game stat lines would suggest. Then, in the Western Conference final, the Golden Knights took down the Dallas Stars, who were getting outstanding performances from the likes of Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski.
Somehow, the Golden Knights’ toughest matchup so far could come against another eighth seed.
The Florida Panthers are this year’s big story. The way that they made the playoffs has become a favourite talking point on social media – the Pittsburgh Penguins lost 5-2 to the bottom-feeding Chicago Blackhawks to miss the playoffs – but the Panthers have taken the opportunity granted to them and run with it.
Coming back to beat the President’s Trophy-winning and record-breaking Boston Bruins was the most shocking upset in years, but following that up by beating two other top-five teams in the league – the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Carolina Hurricanes – showed the Panthers could be the best example of a team built for the playoffs since the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings.
That Kings team was also an eighth seed. And they won the Stanley Cup, kickstarting an electric era in team history which featured a second cup in 2014.
While the Panthers will hope to write a similar story for themselves in the coming week or two, the Golden Knights will seek a better outcome in their second finals appearance in six years than they got in their first.
Surely, the 2022-23 Stanley Cup Finals will feature a storybook ending. The final chapters are still to be written, but if the playoffs so far are any indication, it should be a great read.
Here are a few storylines from the playoffs so far that could prove pivotal in the series.
Dallas is out, but the stars shine
Every playoff produces a star. Somebody has to become the name that fans and media credit with leading their team to the Stanley Cup. This year, there are a number of candidates.
The most obvious player to name is the one that has gotten by far the most media attention, even appearing in People magazine. That would be Matthew Tkachuk. The Panthers forward sits second in the playoffs with 21 points and has a very respectable 57.01 expected goals percentage (xGF%) at five-on-five, according to Evolving Hockey. His four game-winning goals, including three in the series against Carolina, are enough to consider him the most clutch player in the playoffs so far.
Also on the Panthers’ side of the equation is Sergei Bobrovsky. It just cannot be understated how much of a game-breaking factor the 34-year-old goaltender has been. The team has been impressive in all three series so far, but Bobrovsky has stolen games for them and is a huge reason for their finals berth.
On the Golden Knights’ side, there are a few candidates, but two that stand out.
Jack Eichel leads the Golden Knights with 18 points in the playoffs, tied for fourth league-wide. His 58.19 xGF% at five-on-five is a sign of the difference he has made not only offensively but defensively, where his speed and strong stickwork helps him to track players down and turn the play around. Eichel’s resurgence from a devastating back injury to a bold surgery decision to being a superstar once again is one of the best stories of the playoffs.
Another Golden Knight has gone somewhat under the radar: Jonathan Marchessault. The winger not only has 17 points (a point per game) and three game-winning goals, but has been one of the best players from a possession perspective. His 60.74 xGF% at five-on-five leads all remaining players and it is clear the impact he has in all three zones and off the ice.
The question now is, which one of these players will be the biggest star after the Stanley Cup has been lifted? Or will it be someone else entirely? We will just have to wait and see.
Goaltenders change the story
With little doubt, the biggest reason for the Panthers’ success in these playoffs has been the play of Sergei Bobrovsky. The Russian netminder has seemingly stopped everything thrown at him since taking over in goal from Alex Lyon in the series against the Bruins.
With regular season struggles behind him, Bobrovsky has brought back an ability to steal games from his dominant days with the Columbus Blue Jackets that earned him his massive contract with the Panthers. With 21.17 goals saved above expected (GSAx) in 14 playoff games according to Evolving Hockey, that 10 million dollar paycheque has not looked too bad these playoffs.
As much as Bobrovsky is the biggest story and perhaps the most likely Conn Smythe Trophy winner at this stage, the storyline in the goal crease on the other side of the ice is nearly as captivating. The Golden Knights have not been able to catch a break when it comes to the health of their goaltenders, but each seems to be able to answer when called upon.
With long-term injuries to Robin Lehner and Logan Thompson as a backdrop, the Golden Knights’ goaltending depth has had a profound impact. Laurent Brossoit started the playoffs playing fairly well, but Adin Hill took over and took advantage when he went down with an injury. Hill now sits second in the playoffs with 10.01 GSAx and even looked like the bigger factor between the posts in a series against playoff Jake Oettinger.
The two goalies in this series are coming in having harnessed some of the surprising playoff prowess Oettinger, Carey Price and Thatcher Demko have shown in recent years. Going further back, perhaps Jean-Sebastien Giguere is comparable. If he continues to play as he has and the Panthers prove unable to get passed the mighty Golden Knights, Bobrovsky might just be able to be the first losing goaltender to receive the Conn Smythe since Giguere.
Vegas’ defensive depth could prove too much for Panthers
A quick glance at the two forward groups may suggest a close battle, if not an edge for Florida due to their undeniable depth. But a quick glance at the two blue lines tells a different story. One where the Golden Knights’ superiority is unquestionable.
Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore leading the way is enough to impress. Past Stanley Cup-winning goal scorer Alec Martinez and defensive stalwart Brayden McNabb make the Golden Knights look even more difficult to beat. But it is the bottom pairing that seals the deal.
Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud have been strong in these playoffs, serving as the shutdown players a championship-worthy team needs on its third pair. Hague's mix of a 6’6” frame, long reach and knack for knocking down passes make for a forward's nightmare, while his heavy shot makes him a two-way threat. Whitecloud is not as big, but makes up for it with a tenacious playing style and strong positioning to shut down plays in his own zone.
The Golden Knights play strong team defence and have proven able to shut down high-powered offences, having kept even McDavid and Draisaitl quiet at five-on-five in the last few games of the Oilers series.
A key part of their strong defensive performance has been blocking shots. Vegas leads the playoffs with 264 blocked shots as a team and three of their defencemen are in the top four individual players in that respect. Seven Vegas players, including Eichel all six defencemen, are in the top 31 players (Florida has five players in that group).
Golden Knights stifle teams, Panthers crush them
One thing the Golden Knights and Panthers share is they do not seem to mind if they do not have the puck all game. Both teams looked at times like they were being dominated in puck possession in their respective Conference Finals, but they came away with victories because they did not allow their opponents to take advantage of that time with the puck, and took advantage of their own opportunities.
Vegas’s strong defence is accentuated by a stifling defensive system where their forwards take responsibility too. All five players are expected to not only get back to their own zone quickly but to set themselves up in a good position to pick off any potential turnover (they have the best turnover differential in the playoffs and had the second-best in the regular season according to Evolving Hockey).
The Golden Knights are also comfortable letting their opponents cycle the puck in their zone. They shut down the middle of the ice as best they can and are often successful in limiting rebounds against Hill. Once they make a play in their own zone, they hit the gas and take off as one of the best transition teams in the league.
The Panthers have not been nearly as fortunate as the Golden Knights when it comes to outscoring their expected goals (the Golden Knights have 13.76 goals for above expected, while the Panthers have 6.35 less goals than expected, according to MoneyPuck.com), so this all works in Vegas’ favour. They might be able to keep the high-danger chances to a minimum and keep the Panthers off the board.
The Panthers are a bit different. They use pure force, along with surprising speed, to bury teams before they have a chance to know what is (often literally) hitting them. That applies in their own zone, where they are more willing to venture from the middle of the ice to throw a big hit, but also on offence – their forecheck is a lethal force.
The Panthers sit second in the playoffs in hits just behind the Seattle Kraken, a significant change from the regular season, in which they were 24th in the league. They truly found a new brand of hockey in the playoffs and without a doubt, it is working for them.
This, along with the pure speed and skill across their top three lines (having Carter Verhaeghe, Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart on different lines does wonders) means Florida is a team that likes to score off the rush as much or even more than from the cycle.
So, a huge factor in deciding the series will be seeing whether the Golden Knights’ staunch but conservative defensive scheme can withhold the Panthers’ aggressive style.
Will the rush game favour the Golden Knights?
The Golden Knights have been one of the better teams in the league when it comes to scoring on the rush. They work well in transition and have some of the best sharpshooters in the league, including Eichel and Marchessault. The Bruins, Leafs and Hurricanes were all very strong teams, but from a stylistic perspective, they may not be as difficult a matchup as the Golden Knights could be for the Panthers.
This could be a critical factor in the series because the Panthers’ defence is not the Golden Knights’ defence. Gustav Forsling, Josh Mahura and Brandon Montour have all made new names for themselves with the Panthers and especially in these playoffs, but none of those three, Marc Staal or Radko Gudas are obvious stand-out rush defenders. Aaron Ekblad is a star in many respects and a tough guy to beat, but to say that group looks less menacing than the Golden Knights’ defensive corps is fair.
The Golden Knights will try to take advantage of that difference, but there is a twist. As mentioned, the Panthers are also a team that thrives on the rush and the forecheck. If that style and the Panthers’ speed on the wing can beat the Vegas defenders, even if only from time to time, it could make the difference. If Bobrovsky keeps up his play, a couple of chippy goals and picked corners off the rush could be enough to win four games.
The Stanley Cup Finals are here. Two teams remain with the opportunity to lift a legendary trophy. It may not be the matchup we expected, but who knows, it could be the one we need.
It all kicks off tonight.