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Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nicolas Hague (14) is held by Florida Panthers defenseman Marc Staal (18) during a scuffle in the third period of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena Saturday, June 3, 2023.

Some guys just can’t handle Vegas.

Apologies for starting out a column about one of the most significant moments in our city’s sports history with one of the most overused clichés about our city but hear me out. What theory better explains how the Florida Panthers acted Saturday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final?

Florida reached this year’s championship matchup as a feel-good story that continually defied the odds and pulled three straight playoff series upsets to win the Eastern Conference crown. The Panthers did so by continually keeping their cool despite any and all circumstances, which allowed them to come through in the biggest moments.

There was no semblance of that identity in their 5-2 loss to the Golden Knights Saturday at T-Mobile Arena. Florida played like a group of goons for most of the game, and then got worse when things didn’t go its way late — elevating into a consortium of cheap-shot artists.

“Everybody just (expletive) breathe,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said with a smirk after the game. “I feel like you people have been here; you’re tight.”

Too bad Maurice apparently didn’t dispense that advice to his team on the bench in the third period instead of to media members in a postgame interview room.

The Panthers’ best player, Matthew Tkachuk, could have used some spur-of-the-moment meditation practice before punching defenseless Vegas blue-liner Nicolas Hague in the face twice to get a late game-misconduct penalty. The officials also tossed fellow Florida forward Sam Bennett in the same skirmish, while Vegas’ Chandler Stephenson met the same fate for reasons unknown.

The score was 4-2 with about five minutes to play when those tempers flared, enough time for the Panthers to conceivably pull out the type of miracle they’ve managed multiple times throughout the playoffs. They even conveniently got a breakaway chance seconds later, but Vegas goalie Adin Hill waited out Florida forward Sam Reinhardt to force a wrister wide of the net.

Golden Knight Reilly Smith scored an empty-netter when the puck went back the other way, getting slashed by Panther defenseman Radko Gudas for another penalty in the aftermath.

“We played our composed game,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “We didn’t get too heated like they did at the end. I think that’s winning hockey for us.”

A little Vegas flash was all it took to take Florida out of its element. The Golden Knights certainly brought the glitz in rising to the occasion for the opener of their second Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.

The third-period game-winning goal where third-pair defensemen Zach Whitecloud surprised even coach Bruce Cassidy by sliding into the slot for a wrister was probably their least showy score.

A first-period snipe by Marchessault, second-period shimmy-then-slap by defenseman Shea Theodore and a third-period knock-down-and-fire by captain Mark Stone were among the Golden Knights’ most dazzling goals of the postseason. Stone’s score was set up by a Tkachuk turnover a few minutes before his ejection so there were reasons to explain the latter’s frustration.

But more must be expected out of a Stanley Cup Final team’s superstar player. Even if the Panthers felt like some extracurricular physicality was necessary, Tkachuk should have let someone else do the dirty work.

Don’t have the player upon whom the franchise must rely to eventually win the series mess with someone like Hague, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound mountain.

“Our team has stuck together all year,” said Vegas forward Jack Eichel, who rushed in to try to get Tkachuk away from Hague. “We do a good job of standing up for each other and I think that’s something we take a lot of pride in. We know it’s going to be physical.”

Florida’s agitation was most evident at the end of the game, but there were glimmers throughout the first 55 minutes of play too. Former Golden Knight Nick Cousins appeared to have a consistent bone to pick with chippy play throughout including an early roughing penalty on Hill.

Vegas’ goalie was a particular source of frustration for Florida. Hill stopped two consecutive close-range shots by Bennett in the middle of the second period, and the Panthers immediately started shoving when the goalie gloved the second one.

The Panthers kept acting like one of Logan Roy’s children on “Succession,” thinking they should be ushered into the equivalent of the best table at the club without any questions and then throwing a fit when finding out it’s not always that easy.

The Golden Knights were the adults in the room.

“We do have a veteran group and I think it showed late in the game when we were sort of able to keep our discipline and get to the finish line,” Cassidy said.

In fairness, the Golden Knights had an uncharacteristic meltdown of their own during this playoff run. Alternate captain Alex Pietrangelo’s slash on Leon Draisaitl at the end of a Game 4 loss to the Edmonton Oilers was worse as a singular moment than anything the Panthers pulled Saturday.

Many expected the Golden Knights to lose the series when he was suspended for the next game, but they bounced back to win two straight and move on to the Western Conference Final. Tkachuk is highly unlikely to, and shouldn’t be, suspended so there’s an even better chance for the Panthers to redeem themselves and come back to win the series.

But it’s not going to happen if they carry themselves like they did in Game 1.

It’s not going to happen if they keep acting like belligerent tourists who think the normal rules don’t apply in Vegas.

“We’re just trying to play the right way and be disciplined,” Marchessault said. “Tonight, we were able to be the better team.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or

Article written by #LasVegasSun