Who wins the Stanley Cup? Goalie confidence ratings, X factors, predictions for Panthers-Golden Knights

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From 32 teams starting the 2022-23 NHL season, the Stanley Cup playoffs have whittled down from 16 to eight to four, and now just two remain.

The Stanley Cup Final begins Saturday, June 3, as the Vegas Golden Knights will host Game 1 against the Florida Panthers. Regardless of which team wins, it’ll be the first-ever championship for a franchise.

To help get you up to speed before the opening puck drop, we’re bringing you a mega-preview, breaking down each team in five different categories that will help determine whether it’ll be Mark Stone or Aleksander Barkov hoisting the Cup this spring.

Note: Kristen Shilton broke down the Panthers, while Ryan S. Clark profiled the Golden Knights.

How they got here: Defeated Boston Bruins 4-3; defeated Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1; Defeated Carolina Hurricanes 4-0

Goalie confidence rating: 9.5/10

Sergei Bobrovsky is playing the best hockey of his career this postseason. That’s a tall order considering Bobrovsky’s two-time Vezina Trophy-winner pedigree.

But not only has Bobrovsky surpassed his own previous heights, he has steadily gotten better throughout the playoffs. Bobrovsky’s masterful performance in the Eastern Conference finals — 4-0-0 record, .966 save percentage and 1.12 goals-against average, plus a first-ever postseason shutout — propelled the Panthers to a swift sweep of Carolina. The three goals Bobrovsky allowed in Game 4 were the most he’d given up since Florida’s first-round series against Boston.

The stats are staggering. Bobrovksy’s stunning. The Cup finals will be another opportunity for him to shine.

What we’ve learned about this team so far

Florida plays by its own rules — and has a great time doing it. That’s been the Panthers’ secret sauce since punching their last-minute ticket into the playoff field. They truly approach each game with a fun-focused attitude; there’s no pressure or expectations weighing them down, and that’s a gift in itself.

Florida is also a superior team to the one talked about throughout the regular season. The Panthers can win tight-checking, defensive-heavy battles or the more wide-open, offensively amplified ones. They’re deep, they’re dangerous and most importantly, the Panthers know exactly who they are. And clearly, they knew that way before anyone else. Regardless of how the finals end for Florida, this has been a spectacular spring for a team pundits previously left for dead.

Player who will be key to the series

Beyond Bobrovsky? Matthew Tkachuk. He has been The Guy in practically every big moment the Panthers have encountered this postseason. Tkachuk scored three game-winning goals in the conference final alone — two in overtime and one in Game 4 with less than five seconds remaining in regulation — and is second in overall postseason scoring, with 21 points in 16 games.

Florida’s feisty forward is the rare player who can — and will continue being — a threat on every single shift, a force at 5-on-5 and dangerous on the power play. The Panthers rely on Tkachuk to drive the team’s offense, and he hasn’t let them down yet in taking control and taking over when necessary.

Player who needs to step up

Florida’s many strengths include a depth of performers up front. This Stanley Cup Final is a chance for Eetu Luostarinen to do even more in that category.

This series could present long stretches where the top two lines cancel each other out; Luostarinen is a solid two-way player who could break through from a bottom-six spot to generate some offense. He has produced only two goals and six points in 16 playoff games thus far, but has been a reliable defensive piece that coach Paul Maurice can move throughout the lineup. Now that the Panthers are at their pinnacle, Luostarinen shouldn’t hold back from padding those stats and providing Florida with a real third-line attacking presence.

The Panthers’ special teams haven’t gotten their due

Florida owns the best playoff penalty kill (at 84%) since the start of its second-round series against Toronto, allowing only four goals the past 25 times it was shorthanded. The Panthers’ power play has been immaculate over that stretch as well (30.4%), with at least one goal on the man advantage in six of their past seven games.

Special teams success can literally make or break a team in the playoffs — Carolina was 2-for-14 against Florida on the power play; think that helped do them in? The Panthers have capitalized on their chances this postseason, and it’s what will make them a complex foe each and every night of the Cup finals ahead.


How they got here: Defeated Winnipeg Jets 4-1; Defeated Edmonton Oilers 4-2; Defeated Dallas Stars 4-2

Goalie confidence rating: 9.5/10

Adin Hill began the month of May without a single playoff appearance on his résumé, but he has become one of the biggest reasons the Golden Knights have reached the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in six years.

Hill replaced Laurent Brossoit, who suffered an injury in Game 3 in the second round, and has since become one of the Golden Knights’ most consistent performers. He helped the Golden Knights close out the Western Conference final against the Stars with a 23-save shutout. Blanking the Stars means Hill enters the Stanley Cup Final with a 7-3 record, a 2.07 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage while also stopping more than 30 shots per game in seven of those contests.

What we’ve learned about this team so far

Enough was in place at the close of the regular season to suggest the Golden Knights had depth. The playoffs have shown there are layers to the Golden Knights, and how they operate.

All of their lines can consistently forecheck, with the notion that all of their combinations have their unique way of creating scoring chances. They have veteran defensive pairings, including one in Alec Martinez and Alex Pietrangelo that has three combined Stanley Cups. But the pairing that has seen the most 5-on-5 minutes is Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud. Then, of course, there is what Hill has accomplished as the latest goaltender who has provided stability in the crease.

Players who will be key to the series

A player who might be at the heart of that discussion about the Golden Knights and their layers could be Jack Eichel. He has given them the No. 1 center who, under coach Bruce Cassidy, has emerged as a two-way presence and one of the favorites to win the Conn Smythe. Cassidy has also pulled the best out of other forwards such as Ivan Barbashev, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone.

There is also a case for Pietrangelo. He’s playing in key situations, such as the penalty kill and the power play, while averaging more than 24 minutes per game — a near four-minute separation between himself and Martinez, who is second in average ice time.

Player who needs to step up

Does one really exist? Look throughout their lineup. They have received contributions that have been noticeable, such as those made by their stars, and ones that may go unappreciated in ways that make players such as Michael Amadio, Keegan Kolesar, Nicolas Roy, Hague and Whitecloud so important to their setup.

Instead, it’s a particular unit that needs to step up: the penalty kill. The Golden Knights have succeeded in killing penalties only 63.0% of the time, which is why they enter the Cup finals ranked 14th out of the 16 postseason teams. That could turn into a big problem based on another trend: the Golden Knights have taken the second-most penalty minutes during the playoffs.

Could this Stanley Cup Final change how certain front offices view first-year coaches?

Think about last year’s narrative around coaching and the Stanley Cup Final. Both Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar and Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper were examples of why it may benefit front offices to be more patient with their bench bosses. Cooper is the longest tenured coach in the NHL while Bednar was third.

Fast forward to this Cup Final. Cassidy and Maurice have reinforced the expectation that playoff-caliber teams with first-year coaches can win the Stanley Cup. Of course, that does come with context. Cassidy came to Vegas having reached the playoffs in six straight seasons with the Bruins, while reaching the Stanley Cup Final back in 2019. Paul Maurice reached the playoffs in his last four full seasons in addition to having a Stanley Cup Final appearance (2002, with the Hurricanes) as well. Don’t forget what Pete DeBoer did in his first season with the Stars, either. That’s three of four conference finalists who had first-year coaches.

The Golden Knights faced questions about whether they could contend after their first spring of no playoffs. Some wondered if the Panthers could ever get past the second round. The Stars seemed lost in a Central Division filled with monsters. But by going with a fresh voice — the right fresh voice — all three pushed over the hump this season.

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