MIAMI – The Florida Panthers have been the best team in the NHL for the past six weeks. The Vegas Golden Knights were one of the five best teams in the league for the entire regular season.
Now, they’re meeting in the 2023 Stanley Cup Final with a championship on the line. It’s “a rightful culmination to the season,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said.
“They beat three really good teams,” Maurice said. “We feel we have, as well.”
Here are five initial thoughts on the Florida-Vegas matchup, which begins Saturday with Game 1 at T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada:
1. The Panthers are underdogs, but ready.
For the fourth straight round, the Panthers are underdogs, although the gap isn’t quite as large as it was in the early stages of the playoffs.
In Round 1, they were massive underdogs to the Boston Bruins, who set regular-season records for wins and points. In Round 2, they were big underdogs again as the Toronto Maple Leafs became the new Cup favorite. By Round 3, Florida earned enough respect to be a slimmer underdog to the Carolina Hurricanes, although it still was one.
The same is true now in the Stanley Cup Final. The Golden Knights are a -135 favorite to win the Cup, according to Caesars Entertainment. Their chances to win range from 53-57%, according to the Athletic, MoneyPuck.com and FiveThirtyEight.
Based on Maurice’s initial scouting report, the Panthers are ready for what Vegas presents, though. It’s the luxury of spending the last seven weeks playing nothing but legitimate title contenders. The Golden Knights are another one.
“You’re going to see components in Vegas’ game that we’ve probably seen in each series,” the first-year coach said. “There’s a tremendous number of similarities between Boston. They also have then the dynamic offensive players, much like Toronto does and some of the things they do in the small areas and then they play a hard-gap game like Carolina does, so in each of our three opponents we will find pieces of Vegas’ game.”
2. Two red-hot goaltenders battle.
By about any measure, Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has been the best goalie in these Stanley Cup playoffs – and maybe the best player, regardless of position.
Not too far behind is Golden Knights goaltender Adin Hill.
Bobrovsky has saved 19.7 goals above expected in 14 games in the Cup playoffs, according to MoneyPuck. This number is surely somewhat inflated because of the Hurricanes’ high-volume, low-quality offense they faced in the Eastern Conference finals, but it still places the 34-year-old Russian nearly 11 goals clear of everyone else and his 1.32 goals saved above expected for game are most among all goalies to play at least five games in these Cup playoffs.
Hill, 27, is third on the list this postseason with 6.4 total goals saved above expected and 0.63 per game.
It often takes a red-hot goalie to win a championship and both of these teams have one. Determining a winner could be as simple as figuring out which one will play better in June.
Bobrovsky certainly has the better track record. He has won a pair of Vezina Trophies and was better than Hill in the regular season, with 0.13 goals saved above expected per game compared to 0.04.
3. The Panthers’ edge: High-end talent and a power-play advantage.
Even though the Golden Knights had the fifth-best record in the NHL, Florida mostly outplayed Vegas in the regular season. The Panthers controlled a greater share of shot attempts, shots, scoring chances, high-danger chances and expected goals, and even had a better 5-on-5 goal differential than Vegas did.
The Panthers’ biggest advantage is probably with their top-end talent. Florida had five players in the regular season – right wing Matthew Tkachuk, All-Star center Aleksander Barkov, star defenseman Brandon Montour, and wingers Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Reinhart – with more points than the Golden Knights’ leading scorer. It’s the same advantage the Panthers had in the East finals and it’s a big part of why they were able to sweep despite getting outshot by Carolina in every game.
Their power play is also rolling, now 12 of 34 since they went 0 for 9 to start the playoffs. It’s another big potential edge: The Golden Knights have the third-worst penalty kill in the playoffs at 63% and were in the bottom half of the league in penalty-kill percentage in the regular season, too.
4. The Golden Knights’ edge: Depth and defense.
The Golden Knights have mostly been statistically superior to Florida in the postseason – they’ve done a better job of controlling 5-on-5 shot attempts, shots, scoring chances, high-danger chances and expected goals – and there are a few explanations for why.
The more generous explanation for the Panthers is they’ve spent the playoffs facing the stiffest competition possible. Vegas, though, also has an edge in depth, with 20 players with more than 10 points.
It’s the perk of being a new franchise with the league’s current expansion rules: The Golden Knights built depth right away, even though it took longer to find true stars. Like Florida, they’re not afraid to play any of their four forward lines.
“It makes for way better hockey,” Maurice said. “I think you get way heavier, harder, faster hockey that way.”
On defense, they also held opponents to just 11.0 high-danger chances per game in the regular season, while the Panthers led the league with 14.8. Something has to give.
5. What will the long layoff mean?
The one unknowable factor is what sort of role the Panthers’ long layoff will mean.
They haven’t played since last Wednesday and will have gone 10 days without playing by the time the Final starts this weekend.
Florida expects to be as healthy as possible, which is obviously good. It’s also, however, impossible to know how well Bobrovsky will stay in rhythm after such a long break.