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Throughout their run to the Stanley Cup Final, the Florida Panthers ran through a gauntlet of Eastern Conference powers by receiving world-class goaltending and overwhelming opponents with their consistent, blistering speed while Matthew Tkachuk turned into the NHL’s most clutch player.
It didn’t always appear that way. Florida emerged with an early 1-0 lead after Eric Staal received a feed from Anton Lundell and scored a beautiful wraparound goal while shorthanded during his 100th career postseason game, 17 years removed from winning the Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. Jonathan Marchessault countered for the Golden Knights as both teams were deadlocked entering the first intermission. It appeared the Panthers’ speed, opportunism and superior goaltending would keep them afloat in Game 1.
Sergei Bobrovsky emerged as the leading Conn Smythe Trophy candidate and is arguably the best story of a frantic spring through a league-wide lens. He’s been exceptional for the Panthers and once again made several quality stops in Game 1, but was out-duelled by his Golden Knights counterpart, Adin Hill.
Hill made one of the best saves of the postseason and perhaps one of the best saves in recent Stanley Cup Final history, robbing Panthers forward Nick Cousins of what surely would’ve been the go-ahead goal 50 seconds into the second period. If Cousins buried this chance, it’s eminently possible the Panthers would have run away with this game and buried the Golden Knights with their pace and slightly superior shot-creation.
Hill was phenomenal in this contest, saving 1.38 goals above expected and all seven high-danger attempts he was prone to. Bobrovsky didn’t play poorly but he crashed back to Earth. Perhaps the 10-day hiatus affected him more than any other Panthers player, while Hill may now steal the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Florida habitually scores goals during the last gasps of periods and Anthony Duclair tied the game at 2-2 with 11 seconds remaining in the second frame. This is a team that usually improves as the game marches forward but the Golden Knights weren’t fazed. In the final period, the Golden Knights’ ancillary and star players were better than the Panthers’.
Zach Whitecloud gives Vegas a 3-2 lead
Golden Knights have won 32 straight playoff games when scoring 3 or more goals (3rd longest streak in NHL history) #VegasBorn
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) June 4, 2023
Ahead of Saturday’s contest, the Golden Knights received just three goals from their defensemen but their blueliners were imperative in securing an opening night victory. In the third period, Shea Theodore took advantage of a temporarily hobbled Duclair, who blocked a shot earlier in the shift. Duclair then took a poor route to the puck and Theodore wired a wrist shot from the point for his first goal of the playoffs, a shot that Bobrovsky likely would’ve stopped during the opening three rounds. Brett Howden received a secondary assist but you can’t screen a goalie better than he did.
Whitecloud’s perfectly placed shot beat Bobrovsky through a screen as a cutting Marchessault occupied Panthers defenseman Marc Staal and made it impossible to see. If the book on Bobrovsky — if one exists, of course — is to beat him from distance through traffic, the Golden Knights executed this strategy perfectly. In a larger sense it may be unsustainable, as you don’t want a steady diet of long-distance shots to be your preferred method of operation, but for one night, it worked.
We could fixate on the unsung heroes and for the Golden Knights and Panthers, who roll four lines and truly embody a team ethos, it would align with their routes to the Cup. Ultimately, you need your best players to be your best players and the Golden Knights’ big guns stepped up in Game 1.
Tkachuk is the definition of a superstar, a Hart Trophy finalist who scored countless clutch goals for the Panthers, married with genuine confidence and showmanship that’s often lacking from this sport. The 25-year-old has used perceived slights to fuel him — although at this juncture, nobody’s buying the idea that it’s the Panthers against the world — but during a critical stage of the game, he tossed the puck carelessly up the middle of the ice. Mark Stone, the Golden Knights’ captain with a reputation as one of the NHL’s premier two-way forwards, picked it off and beat Bobrovsky, almost in one fell swoop, ending the game for all intents and purposes.
Stone was outstanding for the Golden Knights, while his primary line, consisting of himself, Howden and Chandler Stephenson combined for an 87.6 percent share of the expected goals at 5-on-5. Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov wasn’t invisible but he registered two shots and failed to provide the same level of defensive impact that his reputation has warranted throughout his career.
It may be slightly reductionist but the Panthers carved out a clear formula for success. Vegas, a team that isn’t defined by singular identity traits but rather operates as an amorphous, veteran-laden club that is capable of adapting to any style of play, waited for Florida to play its hand and capitalized in the key shifts of this game, while receiving superior goaltending.
Will the Panthers’ stars elevate their games once again and can they rattle a team with several proven Stanley Cup winners? These two elements may dictate the series.