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Playoff Notebook: How the Panthers and Golden Knights made the Stanley Cup Final
8 months ago
There’s a lot to learn from the final two teams vying to hoist Lord Stanley’s Mug.
The Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers enter the Stanley Cup Final each looking to win their franchise’s first championship, and they’ve each gotten here under extremely different circumstances.
For the Golden Knights, this week is the culmination of a six-year ‘all-in’ process that finally bared the same fruit as their magical inaugural season. Vegas has been a routine Cup favourite since 2018, and now they’re finally back.
For the Panthers, they entered the postseason as the East’s final entry with zero expectations for success. Then they shocked the sports world by upsetting the 65-win Bruins, the 50-win Maple Leafs and the Metro Division-winning Hurricanes to return to the Final for the first time since 1996.
Both teams have gotten to the final thanks to meticulously crafted rosters that remain in the championship conversation year after year, and that’s something the Canucks are hopefully paying attention to. Yes, the Panthers were the 17th overall team in points percentage during the regular season. But they’ve also made the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons, including their 2022 finish atop the NHL regular season standings.
Yes, an underwhelming roster can sometimes sneak through a round or two. But the pretenders always get found out eventually, while the contenders can claw their way back from the brink.
Today we’ll take a look at how the Panthers and Knights got to the Cup Final, and take a brief look at the biggest X-factor heading into the series: Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Path of the Panther
The Golden Knights and Panthers have taken vastly different directions to team building, but there are a few similarities.
The Panthers spent years patiently constructing a core of high draft picks like Sasha Barkov and Aaron Ekblad. But right as Bill Zito took over as their GM in 2020, the Panthers realized they needed to start taking some big swings to get South Florida’s attention.
They assembled their supporting cast by acquiring undervalued assets like Sam Bennett, Brandon Montour and Sam Reinhart at their lowest prices. They turned free agent castoffs like Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair and Ryan Lomberg into key pieces for a regular playoff team.
But the biggest move Zito and Co. made needs no introduction.
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Trading two core members off a defending President’s Trophy-winning squad is something you might expect to see in the NBA, not the NHL. But Zito’s stunning move to ship Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar off to Calgary in exchange for Matthew Tkachuk could end up becoming the trade of the decade by the time June is over.
On the other side, the Golden Knights have never shied away from pulling the trigger on gutsy deals. Just ask Jack Eichel.
After turning their 2017 expansion roster into a stunning Stanley Cup finalist, Vegas has been doubling down ever since. The Knights have traded away practically every draft pick and prospect they’ve gotten to acquire and sign the biggest names they can, building one of the most stacked rosters the NHL has ever seen in the process.
On paper, this is the Knights’ championship to lose. They’re on Year 6 of a push to win a Stanley Cup, and it’s hard to imagine Vegas will ever get as golden a chance as this one.
But with all the build-up comes expectations, and Vegas has routinely struggled in that department when the chips are down.
The Sharks’ iconic four-goal comeback in 2019, the Stars’ convincing conference final win in 2020, and the Canadiens’ shocking upset in 2021. All of them have contributed to a demon the Knights need to slay in order to hoist their first title in team history.
Compare that situation to the Panthers, who’ve been playing with house money since Game 5 in Boston. These two teams are a lot closer in calibre than their regular season records show, but all the pressure to finish the job rests squarely on the Knights. We’ll see how those expectations affect the two clubs when the series opens on Saturday.
MVB (Most Valuable Bobrovsky)
There’s no goaltender who turns from a pumpkin into a Ferrari quite like Sergei Bobrovsky.
Bobrovsky has always been amongst the streakiest netminders in the NHL, going from stealing games to blowing them without warning. But right now, things couldn’t be going any better for the 34-year-old Russian.
Bobrovsky is the Panthers’ bonafide Conn Smythe trophy winner if the Cats can win four more games. According to Evolving Hockey, Bobrovsky is sporting an Expected Goals Saved Above Replacement of 21.17, dwarfing the Knights’ Adin Hill and his 10.01 score. For context, only nine goalies finished the regular season with that strong a showing.
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The one caveat is that sustaining that momentum is hard as your opponents theoretically get stronger with each new round. With next to no major roster shakeups since the start of the postseason, Vegas has the kind of lineup capable of bringing Bobrovsky back down to earth.
But if he’s able to weather the storm as his Panthers teammates keep up their own scoring pace, Bobrovsky could be the biggest difference maker in who leaves the ice with hockey’s holy grail.
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