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2023 Stanley Cup Final Preview: Golden Knights vs. Panthers

2023 Stanley Cup Final

The Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers weren’t the flashiest picks to go deep in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. But here they are, the last two standing. (AP Photo/John Locher)

The Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers weren’t the flashiest picks to go deep in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. But here they are, the last two standing. (AP Photo/John Locher)

2023 Stanley Cup Final Preview: Golden Knights vs. Panthers

One year ago, the Stanley Cup Final featured something we don’t see as often as you’d think: arguably the two favorites to be there. The Colorado Avalanche was once again a premiere regular season theme that seemed destined for a playoff breakthrough. Perhaps more importantly, they needed one with a host of key players set to become free agents. The Tampa Bay Lightning weren’t quite as dominant in the regular season. But they had converted any doubters in the prior two playoffs when they won it all both times.

In the West this year, there were flashier teams to pick to emerge than the Vegas Golden Knights. The Oilers had established themselves as an elite team, not just one propped up by two elite players. Dallas had a budding, star-studded core with plenty of quality veteran support. The Los Angeles Kings made one of the biggest deadline splurges of any team in the conference and carried strong underlying numbers — just like when they won the Cup in 2012.

As for the East, it was set to be a blood bath. The best regular season team in league history in the 65-win Boston Bruins. Two championship threats right behind them in the Atlantic Divison standings in the Maple Leafs and Lightning. A traditionally analytically dominant Hurricanes team. A Rangers roster dripping with star power fresh off a surprise conference final run. There was no doubt an elite team would come out of the East.

And sure enough, one has. It’s just one we didn’t know was worthy of that declaration until this run began. After all, they didn’t punch their ticket into the playoffs until the regular season’s final days. If Vegas’ path to the Final came in the shadow of some bigger stories, Florida’s brilliance has emerged out of almost thin air. In six weeks, the Panthers went from losing three of their first four playoff games to winning 11 of their last 12. It’s the type of run that makes up for being an afterthought at best and a punch-line at worst for the vast majority of the last quarter century.

While the Panthers have been the darlings of this dance, Vegas has simply taken care of business at every step. Save for a couple of dominant showings from Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and a brief comeback scare from Dallas, the Golden Knights have put together a workmanlike push through the first three rounds. It doesn’t have the flashiness of their year-one effort or the drama of the three runs that followed. But it may be the one they’ve been dreaming of.

The Vegas Golden Knights have settled into the skin of a confident contender. The Florida Panthers have sprinted into the spotlight at a breakneck pace. These two great stories are set for an epic clash in the 2023 Stanley Cup Final.

Vegas Golden Knights (51-22-9, No. 1 Pacific) vs. Florida Panthers (42-32-8, No. 4 Atlantic/No. 2 Wild Card East)

Recent History

Vegas has only been to the Stanley Cup Final once before, although it has played an Eastern Conference team in the playoffs twice thanks to the 2021 format/the North Division. But neither of those two series was against Florida, so this is indeed a first-time matchup.

The Last Time Here

Both teams have only been once before — both early in their history. Both times it didn’t go well. Everyone remembers Vegas’ incredible playoff run in its inaugural season in 2018 — which means they also remember the Golden Knights falling in five games to the Washington Capitals after winning Game 1.

Granted, their maiden finals voyage went better than Florida’s. It took the Panthers all of three years to reach this stage, pulling off a shocking run in the 1996 playoffs. However, the year one Colorado Avalanche (fresh off their move from Quebec City) proved too much for the plucky, clutch-and-grab underdog Cats. The only enduring memories from the series are Florida fans littering the ice with rats after their first goal of Game 3 and the only goal of Game 4 — a triple-overtime winner by little-known Avs defenseman Uwe Krupp to win the Cup for Colorado.

Why Vegas Wins

Because top to bottom, they’re the better team. Other than some LTIR shenanigans with Mark Stone, the biggest story with the Golden Knights is their play. Not the expansion draft, not betraying the franchise goalie, not chasing every big name under the sun. And that’s not to criticize previous iterations of the Golden Knights. After all, they haven’t been lacking in success throughout their short history. But there was always a fatal flaw in years past. Defensive depth, center core, coaching, cap situation, you name it.

Maybe in a different world, goaltending would be that problem this year. And there’s certainly time for that to change. But everything Vegas has touched in the net has turned to, well, gold this season. Adin Hill, one of four netminders to play at least 10 games for Vegas this season, is the one currently riding that wave. He took over for an injured Laurent Brossoit during the second round and has been dynamite from the get-go. Hill is second in third in the playoffs in goals saved above expected (GSAE) and fourth in GSAE per 60 minutes.

While a lot of the focus around Vegas’ run has gone to Jack Eichel‘s performance in his first career playoff trip, the Golden Knights are a team built from the blue line out. Not many teams have a duo quite like Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo, an elite left-handed and an elite right-handed defender who Vegas keeps separate to ensure it has one of the league’s top rearguards on the ice at nearly all times.

Theodore and Brayden McNabb, the only two Golden Misfits left on the Vegas defense, have been the team’s best pairing all playoffs by a concerning margin. Their 54.46% expected goals share, which is primarily the product of strong play in their own zone (the two rank 14th and 15th in expected goals against per 60 out of 97 defenders with at least 50 5v5 minutes played in these playoffs), is eight percent better than Pietrangelo and Alec Martinez‘s and nine percent better than the team’s primary third pair of youngsters Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud.

The Pietrangelo-Martinez pairing has been the definition of eventful. They’re ninth in expected goals for per 60 among d-pairs in the playoffs (min. 50 minutes at 5v5) and fourth worst in expected goals against per 60. Both have been known for their shutdown abilities in the past and getting them back is crucial against a Panthers team with two quality scoring lines.

The Golden Knights have spread their forward core out in these playoffs, resulting in an impressive level of depth scoring. Getting seven points in 11 games out of previously unknown forward Michael Amadio or a Round Three overtime winner from Brett Howden or a three-point Western Conference Final from Keegan Kolesar is always a welcomed development.

Of course, there’s a reason Eichel’s been getting so much positive attention for good reason. His seven primary assists at 5v5 are tops in the playoffs and he’s sporting a 55.21% expected goals share. Vegas is outscoring opponents 15-6 with Eichel on the ice. He may have been drafted No. 2, but he’s the No. 1 center the Golden Knights have lacked since William Karlsson returned to Earth after his 43-goal 2017-18 campaign. Although Karlsson has also been spectacular in the playoffs, with only Draisaitl scoring more goals than his 10. Eight of them have come at 5v5, tied with fellow day one Golden Knight Jonathan Marchessault for most in the playoffs. With those two and Chandler Stephenson down the middle, center has gone from a weakness to massive strength for Vegas.

The Golden Knights have gotten the type of strong play from their top six that a team needs to make a final run. The top line of Ivan Barbashev, Eichel and Marchessault has a 56.23% expected goals share and is outscoring opponents 12-4 at 5v5. The second line of Howden, Stephenson and Stone, the latter of whom is back to elite form after missing the final three months of the regular season: 51.35% xG, outscoring opponents 8-5. That will play.

One area where Vegas does need to step, though, is on special teams. Vegas is 11th in the playoffs at generating expected goals on the power play, and its 18.5% rate ranks ninth. The penalty kill has been a massive problem, however. It’s been sub-75% in each series and is just 63% overall without a single short-handed goal to speak of. A team with former Selke vote-getters Stone and Karlsson and such a strong defense shouldn’t be hemorrhaging chances the way Vegas has. The Golden Knights are allowing an extra expected goal per 60 minutes than any other team in these playoffs. They were 12th in that category in the regular season. A return to anywhere close to that level would be massive for their chances.

Why Florida Wins

Because they’ve got the two most important advantages you can have in a playoff series — star power up front and the better (or at least hotter) goaltender. During the regular season, Eichel led Vegas with 66 points. Four Panthers, including three forwards, eclipsed that total. Matthew Tkachuk will almost certainly finish at least tied for the lead in playoff scoring — he’s just three points behind Roope Hintz and three ahead of Eichel, Vegas’ leading scorer.

But while Tkachuk is the hot name on Florida’s roster, and for good reason given both his heroics against Carolina (and throughout the playoffs) and his underlying play, no one is more integral to Florida’s success than their backup goalie from the first three games of the Boston series. There was a time when “Playoff Bob” was uttered as an insult, and for good reason. Sergei Bobrovsky‘s play would go from usually great in the regular season to brutal in the playoffs like clockwork year in and year out, from Philadelphia to Columbus to his first two years in Florida. But after quietly putting up a quality performance last year, Bobrovsky is putting on one of the greatest goaltending performances in NHL history.

Sergei Bobrovsky Goals Saved Above Expected, Regular Season vs. Playoffs

SeasonRegular SeasonPlayoffs
2010-118.2 (14th of 87)-2.1 (20th of 25)
2013-14-6.2 (74th of 97)-5.4 (25th of 28)
2016-1733.0 (2nd of 94)-3.0 (22nd of 23)
2017-1821.2 (4th of 95)-3.1 (24th of 29)
2018-196.7 (14th of 93)0.8 (10th of 22)
2019-20-12.9 (77th of 85)-2.3 (37th of 42)
2020-21-8.1 (74th of 98)-4.0 (23rd of 24)
2021-2223.4 (4th of 119)6.7 (4th of 30)
2022-236.2 (23rd of 107)19.7 (1st of 28)

The only reason Bobrovsky is merely the favorite and not a total shoo-in for the Conn Smythe Trophy, if Florida wins (and maybe even if it doesn’t), is because Tkachuk has been not just great but has met the biggest moments. Three overtime winners, including one in 4OT and another while facing elimination against Boston. The Prince of Wales Trophy-winning goal with less than five seconds left in Game 4 against Carolina. In the margins, his 56.9% expected goals share is tops among Panthers forwards, and he’s top-10 in goals and primary assists at 5v5. That’s an impressive resume for sure — especially for someone with 15 points in 27 career playoff games in Calgary. Sorry, Flames fans.

Oh, did I mention his center is also a former Flame who’s taken his game to new heights in Sunrise? Sam Bennett has been a nuisance for opposing teams with his physicality and his production. Those two, along with Nick Cousins, have been Florida’s best line in the playoffs. Their third line, consisting of underrated youngsters Anton Lundell and Eetu Lustorainen alongside the other former Sabre who was traded for a first-round pick, Sam Reinhart, has been strong as well. The trio has a 50.2% expected goals share and is outscoring opponents 4-2. The former number is especially impressive considering Florida’s expected goals share as a team in the playoffs is just 46.58% — the lowest for any finalist since the stat was first tracked in 2007-08.

Put two and two together and you can probably guess that Florida needs more from its non-Tkachuk stars. Carter Verhaeghe and Aleksander Barkov have both put up some points — 15 and 14, respectively, with only four assists coming on the power play. However, their trio with Anthony Duclair has been gashed for a 43.15% expected goals share. Barkov and Verhaeghe have been elite play drivers in all of their previous playoff runs in Florida, so it’s not a question of their ability to handle the bright lights. And this isn’t saying that they’ve been bad in these playoffs — just not as good as you’d expect. But one good series can change that in an instant.

The Panthers’ defense is ironically structured somewhat similarly to their in-state rivals in Tampa Bay. One side is ok, the other is elite. For the Lightning, it’s the left side, but the right for the Panthers. It consists of former No. 1 pick Aaron Ekblad, suddenly elite offensive defenseman Brandon Montour and the perfect combination of old-and-new-school player in physical analytics darling Radko Gudas. Gudas in particular has thrived alongside Josh Mahura. Their pairing has racked up a 54.96% expected goals share and a nearly identical goals-for percentage.

Like up front, Ekblad’s partnership with the underrated Gustav Forsling and Montour’s with the aging Marc Staal are both underwater in terms of expected goals. The Ekblad pair is outscoring their opponents; the Montour pair is not. In 135 minutes together, they have an expected and actual goals for percentage in the 41% range. In 60 minutes with Forsling, Montour’s numbers shoot up to 60.24% xG and a 4-1 advantage on the scoreboard. But making that switch permanent would leave a big question mark next to Ekblad.

As mentioned above, the Panthers have a clear edge in special teams on paper in this series. It’s always up for grabs how much that winds up mattering in the playoffs, especially the Stanley Cup Final, where penalties will be as hard to come by as ever. Florida’s power play is actually generating about one fewer expected goal per 60 than in the regular season, where it was the second most dangerous behind Edmonton’s. The PK’s underlying numbers have dropped off even more. It’s in the bottom half of the playoff field at limiting expected goals. At 71.2%, it obviously hasn’t been anything special. But this is a case where being less bad can be just as important better.

The Pick

Both of these teams have been on incredible runs so far. And what happens in the next two weeks shouldn’t diminish the magic of their last six weeks. If everyone was firing at peak powers right now for Florida, they might be my pick. But it’s hard for anyone, even great players like Barkov and Ekblad, to flip the switch and be the true game-breakers they’re capable of, as opposed to the merely very good players they’ve been so far in these playoffs. Combine that with the depth advantage Vegas has — I don’t trust Marc Staal in a second-pair role, and Florida’s current fourth line of Ryan Lomberg, Eric Staal and Colin White has been dramatically outplayed — and it’s easier to see where they set themselves apart.

With three rounds of wear and tear already under its belt and the four to seven most intense games its players may ever play on the horizon, Vegas is in better shape to handle the grind than the Panthers. It’s been great seeing Florida go on this run. But the house always wins. Vegas in 6.

Oddly Specific Prediction

This is an idea I always borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series. The idea is his; the prediction itself is mine.

One of the most intriguing storylines in this series is the Panthers taking on the two that got away. That being Marchessault and Smith, of course, both foolishly lost in the 2017 expansion draft. The Panthers got just a fourth-round pick for Smith and exposed Marchessault over names like Nick Bjugstad, Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic. Not great! In six seasons with Vegas, Smith has 286 points in 399 games and Marchessault has 348 points in 432 games. They’ve both played in all 83 playoff games Vegas has ever played. They’ve each scored 63 points in those games, tied for the most in franchise history.

It would be brutal for the Panthers if the Cup-winning goal was scored by one of those two. Perhaps especially Smith, given he was a key piece of the first team of the Barkov era to make the playoffs in 2016. He even led Florida in scoring in its first-round loss to the Islanders that year. Fortunately, I’m not predicting that to happen. Instead, one of the other four Golden Knights left from their 2018 Final run — McNabb, Theodore, Karlsson or Will Carrier — will.

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All Advanced Stats via Natural Stat Trick and are 5v5 unless otherwise stated (except goals saved above expected, which is per

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