Can the Panthers come back? Top takeaways from a Vegas blowout in Game 2


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The first two periods of the 2023 Stanley Cup Final were pretty even; in fact, the score was tied 2-2 heading into the third period of Game 1. Then, the Vegas Golden Knights scored three straight goals to win 5-2

… and then another four straight to open Game 2, en route to a 7-2 victory over the Florida Panthers, and a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

As the scene shifts to Florida for Games 3 and 4, what have we learned so far, and how will those lessons impact the remainder of the Final?

ESPN reporters Ryan S. Clark, Emily Kaplan, Kristen Shilton and Greg Wyshynski check in with their thoughts after a wild Game 2:

Bobrovsky or Lyon?

Do we have a goaltending controversy in Florida? It’s hard to remember, but it was actually 30-year-old journeyman Alex Lyon who started the playoffs in net for the Panthers. He went 1-2 against the record-setting Bruins, Sergei Bobrovsky came in and well, the rest was history.

Bobrovsky played up to his $10 million-per-year contract with a .935 save percentage entering the Stanley Cup Final. But he has allowed eight goals in four and a half periods, getting pulled in Game 2 once the Golden Knights went up 4-0. That said, the defensive coverage in front of him was less than spectacular. So who gets the nod in Game 3? — Kaplan

Tkachuk’s wild night

With 2:04 left in the second period, it appeared that Matthew Tkachuk might have changed the complexion of the series with one legal hit.

As Vegas star Jack Eichel stickhandled the puck, Tkachuk skated at him with considerable velocity. Eichel sensed a hit was coming, but in bracing for impact his left skate toe-picked on the ice. That sent him awkwardly into the on-charging Tkachuk, who sent Eichel to the ice with a thunderous check.

Eichel immediately left for the trainers’ room, causing concern that the Golden Knights’ leading scorer might have been injured. Both Tkachuk and Vegas forward Ivan Barbashev were given roughing minors and 10-minute misconduct penalties in the aftermath, as Barbashev went after Tkachuk following the hit.

Luckily for Vegas, Eichel only got the wind knocked out of him and returned to play the third period — setting up a critical Jonathan Marchessault goal that made it 5-1 and put a final stake in the heart of the Panthers for Game 2. Tkachuk returned in the third period and earned his first point of the Stanley Cup Final, scoring his 10th goal of the playoffs at 12:44.

But then at 14:01 of the third, Tkachuk’s night was officially over. He earned a second misconduct penalty in the game — and his third of the series. On his way off the ice, he slapped a plastic rat that had been tossed by a fan over the boards. — Wyshynski

No Gudas, big problems?

Losing Eetu Luostarinen after the Eastern Conference finals meant the Panthers were already without a dependable depth option who has five points in 16 playoff games. But losing defenseman Radko Gudas for the rest of Game 2 — and perhaps beyond — is the sort of loss that was only made worse when they allowed an onslaught of goals thereafter.

While Gudas is fifth among Panthers defensemen in 5-on-5 ice time, his Game 2 departure left the Panthers without a player who has seen the third-most ice time on their penalty kill. That loss was felt quickly, with Marchessault scoring shortly after Gudas exited the game following the hit from Barbashev. — Clark

Florida must get out to a better start

The Panthers have rarely looked rattled in this postseason. The first period of Game 2 was one of the moments where they did.

The Panthers were passive until the final few minutes of the frame, and then tried to get something going on the power play. Ultimately they gave up two goals (one right after their man advantage) and looked deflated. It makes you wonder how resilient Florida can continue to be as this series rolls on. The Panthers haven’t faced a ton of adversity since that first-round series against the Boston Bruins, and even getting five shots on their first power-play try wasn’t enough to get them on the scoresheet early.

Instead, they were playing from behind — again. They’ll hope for a better start in Game 3. — Shilton

The task ahead for Florida

The Panthers have two hills to conquer now: Vegas goalie Adin Hill, who is clearly locked in and tending some of the best goal of his NHL career; and the hill that is a 2-0 series deficit.

Teams with a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup playoffs hold a series record of 347-55 (.863). In the 2023 postseason, teams are 5-1 in that situation. In the Stanley Cup Final, the hill becomes an even steeper climb: Teams that take a 2-0 Final lead have won the Cup 48 out of 53 times.

When you factor in that the Golden Knights went up 2-0 on home ice, that hill starts to resemble Mount Kilimanjaro: 38 out of the 41 teams that won the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final on home ice went on to win the series. That said, two teams in the salary cap era (2005-06 and on) have rallied to win after dropping the first two games of their series on the road: the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, who lost two games in Detroit before winning in seven, and the 2011 Bruins, who dropped two games in Vancouver before winning in seven. So the climb will be arduous for Florida, but the hill isn’t insurmountable. — Wyshynski

Barbashev coming on at the right time

Barbashev has been an absolute wrecking ball for the Golden Knights, though his linemates have been getting most of the attention these playoffs. Eichel has been sensational leading the team in points (22) and stellar defensive play, while original Golden Misfit Marchessault has been on an incredible tear, with 12 goals in his past 12 games.

But Barbashev, acquired from the Blues at the 2023 trade deadline, has also been buzzing. It’s these types of smart acquisitions that have kept Vegas so competitive. Barbashev has delivered massive hits — sometimes two on one shift — including the blow that eliminated Florida defenseman Gudas from Game 2. The 27-year-old is a pending unrestricted free agent and has likely earned himself a raise from the two-year, $4.5 million deal he’s finishing this season. — Kaplan

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