Monday, June 12, 2023 | 2 a.m.
SUNRISE, Fla. — When Bruce Cassidy wakes up Wednesday, it will be one year since he was named the third head coach in Golden Knights history.
He could also be a Stanley Cup-winning coach that day.
“Isn’t that ironic?” Cassidy laughed when met with that realization.
By the time Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final ends Tuesday night, that may kickstart an all-night party. That would mean Cassidy and the Golden Knights put the finishing touches on a memorable playoff run that ends with them hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Cassidy may not be a night owl, but he will have earned the right to be one should the Golden Knights wrap up the Cup Final against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday at T-Mobile Arena (5 p.m., TNT). Vegas has a 3-1 series lead and can fulfill team governor Bill Foley’s promise of winning the Stanley Cup in six years with the win.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I went into a situation with a team that wanted to win. That much I knew,” Cassidy said. “You come into a room, it’s up to the players to buy what you’re selling, get the job done and play for one another.”
Vindication is not something Cassidy has needed to obtain during his run as a head coach. He accomplished almost everything in his six-year run with the Boston Bruins; made the playoffs every year, won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year, and coached the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2019.
But the Bruins couldn’t get it done that year, losing in seven games to the St. Louis Blues, captained at the time by his No. 1 defenseman in Vegas, Alex Pietrangelo.
The Bruins felt a change was needed after Cassidy’s group lost in seven games last year to the Carolina Hurricanes. They made the switch to Jim Montgomery and the Bruins went on to have the best regular season in NHL history with 135 points.
Yet it is Cassidy and his new team one win from winning the Stanley Cup, facing the team that knocked off those same Bruins in a seven-game upset. The Panthers rallied from a 3-1 deficit to start this Cinderella run they’re on.
“I think our preparation this year will be similar to every other game,” Cassidy said. “We know it’s a close-out game. I don’t have to tell the players that. They know what’s at stake.”
The Golden Knights would like to avoid that similar fate now that they hold a 3-1 lead on the Panthers, with three opportunities to win the Cup and two of them at home.
Such a celebration could have happened in South Florida had the Golden Knights held on in Game 3, not giving up a tying goal with two minutes remaining and losing 3-2 in overtime. But Vegas will get the opportunity to end the series at home after bouncing back to win by the same score in Game 4 on Saturday.
Cassidy arrived in Vegas with a reputation of coaching with structure and an emphasis on special teams. The latter was up and down throughout the regular season — 18th best power play, 19th best penalty kill — but have been stellar against the Panthers (33% on the power play, 13-for-13 on the PK).
The energy inside T-Mobile Arena will reach a level never felt before. There’s the part about bringing Las Vegas the first ever championship from one of the four major professional sports leagues. There’s also the emotional side: The team that was loved by this city before it ever played a game in the aftermath of the Oct. 1, 2018 shooting.
Cassidy understands the magnitude of what Tuesday could mean for the city and the fanbase.
“I think the fans should celebrate or be prepared to celebrate. It’s up to us to get the job done,” Cassidy said. “Florida’s a huge obstacle in our way to do that. They want to extend the series, so nothing’s automatic.
“But the fans should enjoy the moment. Be prepared for it. They’ve been behind this team for six years now. You play for the guys in the room, you play for your families, the organization, the crest on the front, but the crest on the front represents a lot of the fanbase. We want to make sure we do right by them.”
The Golden Knights bought in to what Cassidy tried to implement early on. It showed during a nine-game winning streak from Oct. 24 – Nov. 10, then again immediately after the All-Star break with a five-game winning streak that came following a 2-6-2 stretch after the turn of the calendar year.
Believing in Cassidy is also why the Golden Knights have responded well after losses this season. Saturday’s win improved Vegas to 4-1 this postseason after a defeat.
Cassidy wasn’t even an option to replace Pete DeBoer last summer after he was fired following two-and-a-half seasons and missing the playoffs for the first time. The Golden Knights are fortunate he was eventually.
“I think as a team we had a bit of a bitterness after last season, missing the playoffs,” defenseman Nic Hague said. “To have a new voice come in I think he’s done a good job of kind of pushing us in the right direction to get to this stage. It’s worked well all season. It’s been good.”
The Golden Knights say they’ve learned their lesson from the Dallas series in not closing it out when the opportunity arrives at home. The want to win the Stanley Cup at home should be enticing enough for Cassidy’s group to get it done.
Cassidy has reached 15 wins in the playoffs before. He’s said multiple times during this run that in order to get to 16, they need to get to 15.
That moment is here, and it would cap off a 365-day stretch he’ll never forget.
“I came into a winning program that had an opportunity to win,” Cassidy said. “And here we are, with a great opportunity.”