Saturday, June 3, 2023 | 2 a.m. | Saturday, June 3, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The Florida Panthers clinched their second Stanley Cup Final appearance in franchise history when their superstar scorer willed through a game-winning, series-sweeping goal in the final seconds of regulation.
The Vegas Golden Knights clinched a second Stanley Cup Final appearance in franchise history when two fourth-line players casual hockey fans have never heard of poured in a pair of early goals as part of a blowout victory.
Both were appropriate finishes to the Eastern Conference and Western Conference Finals, respectively, based on how the Panthers and Golden Knights have played all postseason. Florida has gotten more spectacular individual performances; Vegas has relied on more of an ensemble cast.
“It’s the mentality we have this year: When it’s one guy that steps up one game, next game, it might be another guy,” Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “I think that’s the strength of our team. It can be any guy on any night.”
The dichotomous philosophies, and which one works better, will ultimately play a major role in deciding how the 2023 Stanley Cup Final plays out after it gets under way with Game 1 at 5 p.m. today at T-Mobile Arena.
Based on historical narratives, the Golden Knights might be in trouble. Looking back on past Stanley Cup winners, they almost all have either a transcendental skating talent who raised his game when it mattered most or a world-class goalie who became unstoppable for two months.
The Panthers have one of each.
Forward Matthew Tkachuk enters the Stanley Cup Final riding a wave that includes 21 points in 16 playoff games and four game-winning goals including the aforementioned near buzzer-beater that resulted in the Panthers’ sweep over the Carolina Hurricanes. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky arrives with an 11-2 record in this year’s playoffs and a .935 save percentage that’s seen him rediscover the form that led him to a pair of Vezina Trophy wins earlier in his career.
The Golden Knights don’t have anyone who clearly fit either criterion, but they’re not concerned. And they shouldn’t be because it’s largely by design.
Coach Bruce Cassidy believes Vegas’ biggest edge comes in evenly dispersed ice time, and his defensive scheme has proved to keep opponents to the outside and limit high-danger chances for his goalie.
He’s not against adjusting his strategies — and admits to making some big tweaks in the middle of the Golden Knights’ second-round series against the Edmonton Oilers — but also is in no rush to do so.
“We’ll get back to our mentality of outplay the guy across from you,” Cassidy said of the plan for the Stanley Cup Final. “We’re going to roll all four lines.”
Cassidy must have been tempted to break that mentality in the Western Conference final when the Dallas Stars won two in a row last week to strike at least some fear in the Golden Knights. The series sat at 3-2 in favor of Vegas heading back ahead of Game 6 Monday in Texas.
Cassidy instead stuck to his principles and got rewarded for it. Depth wing William Carrier was listed at 40-1 to score the first goal at sports books but “set the tone,” in the words of teammate William Karlsson, by beating Stars goalie Jake Oettinger with an early backhand.
Carrier then continued to play “unbelievable,” in the words of goalie Adin Hill, by roping a pass to set up a goal by linemate Keegan Kolesar late in the first period to make the score 3-0. He single-handedly sucked all the energy out of the American Airlines Center as the Golden Knights cruised to a 6-0 series-clinching victory.
The amount of praise Carrier received from Karlsson and Hill was notable because the duo is among a crowded handful of players who could lay claim to being the Golden Knights’ most valuable player this postseason run. And that they’re in the conversation is pretty unbelievable in its own right.
Hill was a career backup coming into the season who got thrust into the lineup after an injury to Laurent Brossoit in Game 3 of the Edmonton series. Karlsson, a third-liner, has almost as many goals in this postseason — 10 in 17 games — as he did in the entire regular season, collecting 14 in 82 games.
Karlsson scored twice in a Game 1 overtime victory against Dallas when Hill let in three goals. But Hill stayed strong in a Game 2 overtime victory when the offense struggled for a large stretch of the game.
Like Marchessault said, it’s one guy one night, then another one the next.
“That’s why we’ve gotten this far,” Karlsson said.
The balance was particularly evident in Game 6 of the conference finals. Cassidy pointed out and even seemed to marvel that, of Vegas’ six goals, none of them involved Jack Eichel, Mark Stone or Chandler Stephenson.
Stephenson was Vegas’ lone All-Star forward during the regular season but has seen his efficiency dip in the playoffs. Stone arguably has been the Golden Knights’ best player ever since arriving to the team via trade four years ago, but he’s been more valuable as a captain, leader and steady presence on the ice this postseason.
Eichel has lived up to the hype the most among the Golden Knights’ frontline offensive producers with a team-leading 18 playoff points, but he hasn’t completely taken over games like Tkachuk. He hasn’t needed to.
Eichel’s willingness to play within Cassidy’s system and not selfishly push for more makes the maligned reputation he carried into the season feel even more absurd.
“He’s not asked to carry the team on his back,” Cassidy said of Eichel near the end of the Edmonton series. “Nobody has on our team. I think that’s a big part of the story here. The team that plays the best usually wins.”
That’s what should give the Golden Knights the most confidence heading into one final best-of-seven series. There has been a slew of better players throughout the playoffs, but there has not been a better team.