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NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs

Stanley Cup Final Breakdown & Predictions: Golden Knights vs. Florida Panthers



Stanley Cup Final schedule, Vegas Golden Knights

The Vegas Golden Knights are four wins from the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Of course, the same sentence applies to the Florida Panthers, but only one team can have it, and the other will have a short summer to heal and mentally recoup from being moments away from a childhood dream but no closer.

The stakes will never be higher. The Golden Knights have the advantages, from home ice to a deeper lineup to gargoyle defensemen to protect their net.

The Golden Knights will also have a home crowd that can split ear drums and bring an energy that rivals any SEC college football program.

There has been a workmanlike feel around the Golden Knights. They vanquished the talented Edmonton Oilers by playing a gritty, tight-checking game that grounded Connor McDavid and, eventually, Leon Draisaitl. VGK top center Jack Eichel didn’t get the media attention lavished upon McDavid and instead cleaned up his own zone and said little.

Make no mistake, the Panthers were a Linus Ullmark mistake away from being eliminated in Round One, and the Toronto Maple Leafs may have taken them a little too lightly. The Panthers finished the season with 92 points and were an “excuse me” add to the NHL playoffs when the Pittsburgh Penguins couldn’t beat the lowly Chicago Blackhawks on home ice. Florida needed a furious rally just to be on the cusp of the playoff race.

That may have launched them into the playoffs, but how will a 10-day break affect them? They will be ready, but will that same mojo momentum follow?

Eichel is quickly learning how to be or otherwise showing that he is a winner.

The Panthers also have a winner. Matthew Tkachuk has bedeviled, tortured, and filled the net with game-winners through the Florida playoff run. Tkachuk scored a pair of overtime game-winners and a series-clinching goal with four seconds remaining to sweep the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.

The Golden Knights have a few more winners, too. The Golden Knights have stalwarts from Mark Stone to William Karlsson, who has 10 goals during this playoff run. Alex Pietrangelo, Ivan Barbashev, Chandler Stephenson, and Alec Martinez have also won Stanley Cups. Jonathan Quick and Phil Kessel won two Cups, though neither is expected to play in the Final.

Lastly, there are always heroes you don’t see coming. From fourth-line grinder Max Talbot scoring two goals in Game 7 for the Pittsburgh Penguins to hand Sidney Crosby a Stanley Cup in 2009, or the grinders who filled the net on the Chicago Blackhawks runs, Ondrej Palat for Tampa Bay, Zach Sanford and Jaden Schwartz for St. Louis.

Who will be the surprise hero in 2023?

The Breakdown: Forwards

The Florida Panthers may have a slight edge in talent among the top six. Sasha Barkov is slick, and Sam Bennett is tough. Still, depth and adherence to the gritty system necessary to win the Stanley Cup go to the Golden Knights, and Eichel and Chandler Stephenson are equals to Florida’s center talent.

But Matthew Tkachuk is on a tear like no other. He’s a pest around the net and a playmaker.

Since being down 3-1 to the Boston Bruins in Round One, Florida has learned the art of the suffocating forechecks. They steadily improved in each round, but the Golden Knights forwards bailed out their defensemen against Dallas when pushed.

The Golden Knights have a strong forecheck and some heavy bodies who can punish defensemen as they retrieve the puck. The Golden Knights are sturdier than the Florida defensemen, so while the forecheck battle may swing back and forth, the physicality of it strongly favors the Golden Knights over a seven-game series.

The series may hinge on the forecheck battle.

Advantage: Golden Knights

The Breakdown: Goaltending

Star players and goalies, eh? That’s how Stanley Cups are won, and the Vegas Golden Knights have used up all of their depth this season. Fortunately for the VGK, GM Kelly McCrimmon parted with only a fourth-rounder for Adin Hill, who has been increasingly good since he took over for an injured Laurent Brossoit in Game 3, Round Two.

It was serendipity.

“The free agents had signed … some of the available trade options were no longer available, so we decided to get (Hill) from San Jose,” McCrimmon said Friday.

The 6-foot-5 goalie was sometimes spectacular in the Western Conference Final.

However, all eyes will be on Sergei Bobrovsky. As much as anyone, Bobrovsky has been the difference maker for the Panthers. Bobrovsky was benched for third goalie Alex Lyon down the stretch in the regular season. Bobrovsky’s season stats were pedestrian, at best, with a .901 save percentage.

However, the Florida tendy has stood on his head since reclaiming the net mid-way through Round One. No one has been better. He’s a former Vezina winner with a history of hot streaks and costly playoff mistakes.

“Bob” is Florida’s best hope. If he remains on point, Florida has every chance to win the Stanley Cup unless Hill matches him as he did in the Western Conference Final against Jake Oettinger and the Dallas Stars.

Stanley Cup Final Predictions:

With some help from the National Hockey Now staff, the official VHN Stanley Cup Final predictions:

VHN: If Bobrovsky is not brilliant, the series could end in five. The Golden Knights’ heavy forecheck will quickly soften the Florida defensemen. Watch the Florida second pairing. Marc Staal is slow, and Brandon Montour is 6-foot, 194 pounds. A few Keegan Kolesar retrievals could hurt. The Golden Knights could create a few turnovers if they can get the puck into Staal’s corner.

We like the big Golden Knights defensemen against Tkachuk — that matchup favors the VGK.

We also think the layoff will cool Bobrovsky. If the Golden Knights can get to him early, he may not re-heat.

We like the Golden Knights in 6.

Jimmy Murphy (Boston Hockey Now): Butch Cassidy and the desert kids in 7!

Evan Rawal (Colorado Hockey Now): Vegas. 7.

Sheng Peng (San Jose Hockey Now): Florida in 6.

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