Stanley Cup Finals: 4 early storylines to follow in Florida Panthers-Vegas Golden Knight matchup

Stanley Cup Finals

The Stanley Cup Finals will start Saturday (8 pm ET, TNT) when the Vegas Golden Knights host the Florida Panthers at T-Mobile Arena. Historically, it will mark just the sixth time since expansion in 1967 that the two teams are battling for their first championship. Interestingly, the Golden Knights were the last team in this situation, losing in five games to the Washington Capitals in 2018.

After qualifying for the playoffs in the final hours of the regular season, the Panthers have shocked the hockey world by destroying the top teams in the Eastern Conference. As one of the most surprising Cinderella teams in league history, the franchise returns to the Final for the first time since getting swept in 1996. 

Now that we know who the remaining teams are let’s look at the most intriguing storylines before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. 

After layoff, can Sergei Bobrovsky continue to dominate?

sergei bobrovsky

In 2021-22, Sergei Bobrovsky was one of the best goalies in the NHL, collecting a personal best 39 wins and guiding the Panthers to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best team. However, after a coaching change in the offseason, he struggled with a 24-20-3 record, losing his starting job at the start of the playoffs. 

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After sitting on the bench to watch the Panthers fall behind 2-0 to the Boston Bruins in the first round, coach Paul Maurice put him back in the net. Since then, he’s produced an 11-2 record, stopping 471 shots and earning a .935 save percentage. During the Eastern Conference Final against the Carolina Hurricanes, Bobrovsky gave up only six goals in four games, stopping 168 shots and setting a handful of records for his efforts.  

Although he carried the Panthers to series wins over the Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Hurricanes, Bobrovsky last played on May 24. Ultimately, the lengthy layoff will help him rest or cause him to lose his momentum, which could be the decisive factor in the upcoming series.

Will Matthew Tkachuk continue to make history?

matthew tkachuk

Last season, Matthew Tkachuk set a career-high with 104 points while playing with the Calgary Flames. During the offseason, he told the team he would test free agency in 2023, so they traded him to the Panthers. After the deal, Tkachuk vowed to be one of the last teams playing and scored 109 points to ensure his team qualified for the playoffs. 

Since the opening night of the playoffs, Tkachuk has not disappointed with 11 points against the Bruins and another five against the Maple Leafs. However, he solidified his place in postseason history with one of the most incredible individual series of all time against the Hurricanes. As a man on a mission, Tkachuk scored back-to-back overtime goals in Games 1 and 2, then assisted on the only goal of a 1-0 win in Game 3. Then, with the Hurricanes on the ropes in the waning seconds of Game 4, he scored his third game-winner of the series with just 4.3 seconds left. 

As the heart and soul of the Panthers’ lineup, the Golden Knights will be hard-pressed to slow down a man skating towards his destiny as the first member of his family to win the Stanley Cup Finals. Ultimately, if the Panthers win, the playoff MVP conversation will be between Tkachuk or Bobrovsky, so the final votes will come down to whose performance the writers value more. 

Can Golden Knights overcome previous failures to win Cup?

vegas golden knights

In 2018, the Golden Knights became the first team to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season. During the next six seasons, the club has been one of the best in the Western Conference, winning division titles and routinely remaining as one of the final four teams. 

Despite losing in their first attempt at a title, there are still four players remaining from that roster — Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, William Carrier, and Reilly Smith — meaning the desire to win this time will be more prevalent. The Golden Knights had the fifth-best record during the regular season, finishing 19 points ahead of the Panthers. Whether at home (6-3) or on the road (6-2), Vegas brings a balanced attack and find ways to win games.

Even though the Panthers are seemingly on a collision course with destiny after waltzing through the Eastern Conference, Vegas has had a more challenging road to the Stanley Cup Finals. Ultimately their experiences in close games and eliminating the game’s best player (Connor McDavid) in the second round will be to their advantage. However, will they learn from previous mistakes and bad games to overcome a young, hungry team who has lost only two games since April 23? 

Can Jack Eichel win his first Stanley Cup Finals? 

jack eichel

When anyone talks about the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, McDavid’s name is usually the focal point as the first-overall pick. Until this postseason, very few people talked about Jack Eichel, the player who went second overall in that draft. 

After a rough start to his career with the Buffalo Sabres, the franchise traded away their star to the Golden Knights in 2021. Ultimately, the Sabres refused to allow him to have neck surgery, resulting in a stalemate between Eichel and the Sabres. After a successful surgery, he returned to the game and is almost a point-per-game player in the Western Conference.

Understanding the pressure on him to guide the Golden Knights back to the Final, Eichel has been one of the NHL’s best players, with 18 points in 17 games. Even though he didn’t score any goals in six games against Dallas, he was one of the noticeable players on the ice, whether setting up teammates or playing tough at both ends. Now, on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup for the first time, he’s rounded out his game to be a complete player and contributes more to his team than just points. If Vegas is going to win it all, Eichel needs to continue this epic playoff debut eight years into his professional career. 

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