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Reilly Smith

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Vegas winger Reilly Smith (19) and Florida center Anton Lundell (15) jostle during a March 2023 meeting between the teams.

The Stanley Cup Final winner is traditionally the toughest champion to forecast out of all major American professional sports leagues, with a long history of surprise, underdog victors.

This year’s pairing between the Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers is therefore a return to form following a three-year run of mostly juggernaut teams ultimately hoisting the Cup. The 2019-2020 Tampa Bay Lightning, 2020-2021 Tampa Bay Lightning and 2021-2022 Colorado Avalanche all spent the entire season near the top of future odds to win the title.

Neither Vegas nor Florida followed that path this year.

The Golden Knights came into the season at as high as 25-to-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup. They opened more commonly around 16-to-1 at the end of last year, but prices raised amid a tumultuous offseason that included the announcement that injured goaltender Robin Lehner would miss the entire season and the firing of coach Pete DeBoer.

Vegas got off to a fast start under new coach Bruce Cassidy, though, and its future odds to win the Cup mostly floated in the midrange of 10- to 12-to-1 for months leading into the playoffs.

The Panthers followed the opposite trajectory. They were a 10-to-1 fourth-choice coming into the year—behind only the Avalanche, Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs—but quickly shot up odds boards for months as a disappointing regular season commenced.

The Panthers got as high as 70-to-1 to win the Cup in early April when it looked like they would miss the playoffs, and were still 30-to-1 after grabbing the Eastern Conference’s final seed. They pulled the single biggest series upset of the postseason by knocking off the Boston Bruins as +350 (i.e. risking $100 to win $350) underdogs in the first round.

The betting market didn’t perceive Florida’s chances of beating Toronto in the second round as much stronger; the Panthers were around +175 underdogs. They were +115 underdogs to Carolina in the Eastern Conference Final, so series prices implied only about a 4% chance Florida would beat all three opponents to make it this far.

Vegas is a comparatively expected Stanley Cup Final participant. The Golden Knights were a series underdog to the Edmonton Oilers in the second round at around +150, but otherwise slight favorites against the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Golden Knights are the betting favorite in the Stanley Cup Final at consensus odds of -130 (i.e. risking $130 to win $100), with the Panthers coming back at +110. That calculates out to a 54.5% chance that Vegas wins the championship.

The Golden Knights were actually bigger favorites in their first Stanley Cup Final appearance five years ago, at -150 ahead of an upset series loss to the Washington Capitals.

Like the 2017-2018 Capitals, the 2022-2023 Panthers are perceived to have the stronger top-end players by the current betting market. Despite being an underdog in the series, Florida has the top two players in odds to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ most valuable player—goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (+200) and forward Matthew Tkachuk (+360).

The two stars have built a gap between themselves and their teammates, unlike the Golden Knights, who have reached the final series with more balance. Jack Eichel is Vegas’ leading Conn Smythe candidate at +380 with Jonathan Marchessault (+600), William Karlsson (+600), Adin Hill (+1100) and Mark Stone (+2200) all bunched closely behind.

Everyone beyond those seven players in the series are listed at 80-to-1 or higher.

The Conn Smythe doesn’t typically produce as many unforeseen winners; superstar Alexander Ovechkin’s nod in the Golden Knights’ last Stanley Cup appearance fit the usual profile.

These were neither the players nor the teams most predicted to see in the Stanley Cup Final, but in a way, that makes them fit perfectly with historical norms.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

Article written by #LasVegasSun

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