It had to happen sooner or later.
Unfortunately for the Florida Panthers, it happened in the club’s first Stanley Cup Final game since June 10, 1996.
The Cats lost on the road. It was almost hard to remember what that felt like, to hear an away crowd exalting as the clock expired, not struck quiet and numb.
Florida had won eight road games in a row – the streak that got them here – before Saturday night’s 5-2 loss in Las Vegas in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Final series vs. the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Panthers also had won nine of the previous 10 playoff games by a single goal, five of those in overtime, before Saturday.
Vegas scored its final goal on an empty-netter, after Mark Stone’s unassisted goal past Sergei Bobrovsky had made it 4-2 , knocking down a pass with his own stick and depositing the puck with six minutes left. Vegas went up 3-2 earlier in the third period on Zach Whitecloud’s goal.
Florida tied it 2-2 in the final minute of the second period on Anthony Duclair’s shot between goalie Adin Hill’s legs off a faceoff.
The Panthers have not done well on faceoffs much of this postseason but made that one count with Duclair’s fourth score of the postseason.
Vegas took a 2-1 lead midperiod when Shea Theodore’s shot through traffic sailed over Bobrovsky’s left shoulder into the upper corner of the net.
The first period proved a 1-1 draw as Florida jumped out midperiod with a rare shorthanded goal – Cats a man down but scoring on a wraparound by Eric Staal. It was only the third time and first since 1997 a short-handed goal had opening the scoring in Game 1 of the Final.
Vegas would equalize late in the period when a Panthers defensive lapse left Jonathan Marchessault wide open for his 10th goal of the postseason.
Don’t blame the Panthers’ nine-day layoff for this loss.
Vegas was simply better. Game 2 is Monday night back in Sin City.
This series may be depressing to hockey traditionalists – to the Original Six and Canada – but it’s a huge plus for the NHL’s desire to grow the sport in the South and elsewhere where winters are mild.
Commissioner Gary Bettman should be doing cartwheels especially over the Panthers’ burst from franchise doldrums the past couple of years. The club that did not win a single playoff series from 1997-2001 has loudly arrived – with this Stanley Cup Final appearance the crescendo and reward.
In the past two years Florida has won a Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best record, hosted the 2023 All-Star Game and now reached its first final since 1996. General manager Bill Zito has been a godsend, hiring a pedigreed coach in Paul Maurice, working the megatrade for superstar Matthew Tkachuk and building attendance.
The club signed a new media rights deal, is in the best sponsorship shape it’s ever enjoyed, and is building a new practice center and ice facility in Fort Lauderdale. The Panthers’ franchise value has almost doubled in three years to a current $550 million.
Unappealing final? We’ll see about national TV ratings, but the ticket resale market for Florida-Vegas is fourth-highest ever, perhaps because these are two vacation/destination areas.
Teams up 1-0 in an NHL best-of-seven series are 514-242 all-time advancing, or 68%. When the opening win is at home it’s 354-119, or 74.8%.
Las Vegas and Denver are 750 miles apart, about two hours by air or about 11 on one of the most scenic drives in America.
It’s in Denver Sunday night that the Miami Heat will try to get even in Game 2 of the NBA Finals after losing the opening there to the Nuggets.
South Florida bids to be the first city or region to win NBA and NHL titles the same season – after the others to try have gone 0 for 9. The Heat would be the first No. 8 seed ever to win it all and the Panthers would be only the second.
Hockey is assured a first-time Stanley Cup winner in either Florida or Las Vegas. If Denver wins the NBA title, as the odds (and Game 1) suggest, the two leagues will simultaneously crown a first-time champ for only the sixth time in 74 shared seasons. The last time was in 2019 with the Toronto Raptors and St. Louis Blues.
A 1-0 final deficit should not prove daunting to a Panthers team that rallied from 3-1 down with three straight elimination wins to beat mighty Boston in the first round.
“Beating Boston gave us the confidence if we can beat them we can beat anybody,” Sam Reinhart said.
That confidence is put to the test now.
And all that’s at stake is the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.