The Stanley Cup Finals is upon us. We are mere weeks away from crowning a new champion in the NHL. Before the action gets underway on Saturday, let’s look at the arc of both teams to get to the big dance, a matchup of note, what to look out for on the ice and an x-factor of sorts to watch out for.
The Cats claw back
First, how did these teams get here? A year or so ago, this wouldn’t have been much of a surprise. The Panthers won the President’s Trophy and finally won a playoff series before promptly bowing out to Tampa Bay in Round 2. They would later swing a trade for a bonafide superstar in Matthew Tkachuk, but with cap space so tight, it hurt their ability to backfill quality on defense through losing MacKenzie Weegar in the trade, and an injury to Anthony Duclair knocked out their third leading goal scorer from that season.
Those are hard things to replace and the Panthers simply didn’t because they didn’t have the cap space. They also brought in Paul Maurice with the goal to shake things up in the dressing room — he wanted more structure and he wanted more board play. The Panthers were a fun run-and-gun team when they won the President’s Trophy, but got swept in the second round by the well structured Lightning. Maurice summed it up quite well.
"The most simplest way of explaining it is this: We were predominantly a rush team last year. Brilliant at it. Really good at it. For the most part, well, I have to qualify it a little bit. The rush game disappears in the playoffs. I say that to you now except it's pretty evident it still exists. Historically, though, the rush chances go down. So you can still be a pretty good rush team but we needed to develop another piece to our game we just didn't have at the time."
Trying to build in structure while you are missing key players and with your goaltending struggling is a recipe for disaster, and it showed in the first half of the season. Halfway through, Montreal Canadiens fans were wondering if they might get two top-10 picks as the Canadiens acquired the Panthers 2023 first round pick at the trade deadline last season. But the Panthers caught fire. A game, ironically, against the Maple Leafs became the turning point, as Paul Maurice snapped on the team and they responded with a win. A gutsy win in Boston in January, where Aleksander Barkov scored with 2.4 seconds left, was also noteworthy.
Ultimately they had to go on a run just to make it and they have relished the underdog role ever since. As we said in Round 1, when they were going toe-to-toe with the Boston Bruins — they play fearless and aggressive. They have said all playoffs that they have nothing to lose. Now they are in the Stanley Cup Final, though. Things have changed.
Golden Knights roll with the punches
One thing Vegas has in common with the Panthers is that they too have a first-year coach behind their bench. Like Maurice, this isn’t Bruce Cassidy’s first time behind an NHL bench and also like Maurice, he has coached in the Stanley Cup Final before — and lost.
After Vegas failed to make the playoffs last year, in large part due to injury, they thought it was time for a change and a new voice behind their bench, so they dismissed Pete DeBoer. They still fancied themselves as a contender though and hired another veteran coach to replace him. It wasn’t so much about Cassidy coming in and rocking the boat, but more that he was a good, veteran coach with a strong track record in the league to keep them on the straight and narrow. They were my pick to win the Cup before the season even started.
They started the year well, but started losing players to injury seemingly every night. In December, the entire right side of their defense was out. Jack Eichel missed a month. Mark Stone required surgery. After the All-Star break, they used five different goalies down the stretch. Last season, the injuries derailed them, but this season they've rolled with the punches. When they got healthy going into the playoffs, Cassidy decided to pair up two strong players and spread them out over three lines. Eichel-Marchessault, Stephenson-Stone and Karlsson-Smith. Their three line attack is impressive and causes all sorts of matchup nightmares. Their defense is legitimately six deep. Their de facto third pairing of Hague-Whitecloud would be a legitimate second pairing on a number of teams.
They start the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone and have outscored opponents 12-4 at 5-on-5. He has made all sorts of tough decisions so far, like scratching Phil Kessel and deciding to roll with Adin Hill in the middle of the playoffs. This Vegas team has always felt like they have some unfinished business to them, with a large part of their core having played on the original misfit team that lost in the Stanley Cup Final in 2018. Now they get a chance to complete the redemption arc.
Down to the nitty gritty
One of the most exciting things about this series will be the physicality. These are two big, physical hockey teams with all sorts of heavy hitters. The Panthers are on everyone’s radar at this point. They have a long list of players that you have to keep your head on a swivel for: Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett, Ryan Lomberg, Radko Gudas, even grizzly veteran Marc Staal. Brandon Montour doesn’t mind taking a big run at someone either. But this Vegas team is no pushover. Keegan Kolesar had one of the most electric starts to a game this playoffs.
Nic Hague went head-to-head with Darnell Nurse all series against the Oilers. William Carrier is an underrated player — and hitter — that delivers bone rattling hits along the wall. A lot of their top players play with a sneaky level of physicality, including the likes of Marchessault and Stone.
But this won’t just be about big hits. It’s going to be about who can get to the tough areas of the ice and stay there. Cassidy already mentioned as much in discussion of their system and being able to box out top players like Tkachuk.
"Now, our system is layered," Cassidy said. "We're not a man-to-man (system). So that will help us. We like to have our 'D' close to the net for the most part, so I think that will be a positive to defend him. So that'll be the initial part of it.”
Who can fight through traffic? Who can grind through layers of defending? Who can win the battles along the walls? Ultimately, successful playoff teams fight through traffic. They don’t go around it because the checking is too tight. You have to go through it. Whether you’re watching what Tkachuk or Eichel has done these playoffs, what you’re seeing is guys getting the puck and taking it to the net constantly. They look like basketball players trying to get to their sweet spots on the court to setup their shot. It is so much easier said than done and these are two physical teams that don’t give up an inch on the ice. Who is going to win the physical battle and get to the tough areas on the ice, especially in front of the net? Whoever does is likely going to win the series.
Duel down the middle
When the Golden Knights swung big for Eichel, he was thought to be the missing piece to their puzzle. The prototypical big, top-line center that every team needs. There were lots of questions about his health, but few questioned his general ability to be a high-end contributor if he was in fact healthy. Drafted second overall in 2015, it took him until 2023 to play in his first playoff game, but he is showing he has been worth the wait. He leads Vegas in scoring through three rounds with 18 points in 17 games, and what stands out most is his ability to carry the puck up the ice. The Hockey PDOcast cut up an entire five minute video of the things Eichel was doing with the puck in just the Western Conference finals alone.
His ability to hold the puck out wide and protect while also simultaneously making a play is incredible. He is a master at protecting the puck, to the point where you would think he’s much bigger than his 6-foot-2 frame. In the finals, though, he will likely be going up against the slightly bigger Barkov, who is having a monster playoffs of his own.
Tkachuk is rightfully receiving a ton of headlines, but part of the reason he thrives is because Barkov does a lot of heavy lifting for this team. His most common opponents so far have been Martin Necas and Jordan Staal of Carolina, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews of Toronto and Pavel Zacha and Brad Marchand of Boston, and he has outscored his opponents 15-7 at even strength in that time. He has been able to control the middle of the ice in the neutral zone — where Eichel has excelled — using his size and reach to angle off opponents. Even as things breakdown around him, he just makes smart reads.
On this play, Jake McCabe walks in, and it’s common for the defender covering someone in front to step forward and pressure them, leaving a backdoor pass on the table. Barkov simply ties up his man and dares McCabe to beat Bobrovsky directly. He didn’t and the Panthers scored shortly after.
Everyone in the league wants a big, top line center. Both of these teams have them and it’s going to be some kind of head-to-head matchup that will play a big factor in who wins this series.
An unexpected resurgence
The Panthers have three defensemen that would be top four blueliners on just about any team in the league: Aaron Ekblad, Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour. Their final top-four defenseman, Marc Staal, doesn’t exactly fit that bill though.
A few years ago, Staal’s long career looked like it was all but over. The New York Rangers traded him away with a second round draft pick for future considerations to clear the final year of his $5.7 million cap hit. The Red Wings ended up extending him for another year at $2 million as a veteran stop gap, pairing him with the emerging Filip Hronek. Last summer, the Red Wings considered bringing him back, but signed Ben Chiarot and Olli Maatta instead, and he ultimately ended up signing a one-year, $750,000 deal to go to Florida.
At 36, he's not the most fleet of foot or the most skilled, he comes across as a player that can be targeted as a liability. He lost the shot-share battle at even strength for eight consecutive seasons before signing with the Panthers, and once again was just under the mark this year. But he manages to get by.
Staal has actually outscored opponents in six of those overall nine seasons. At some point, that’s not just coincidence. The forwards he has played against the most so far in the playoffs? Nylander, Tavares, Marchand, Zacha, Marner and Matthews. Against Carolina, the forward he logged the most time against was Necas. He is averaging 21:54, which is inflated due to their four overtime game. It helps when Sergei Bobrovsky is playing lights out, of course. Staal and his regular partner, Brandon Montour, have been outscored by one goal overall (in his last game he was on for all three Hurricane goals) through three rounds. It’s not overly impressive, but the Panthers, who are a top heavy, forward-driven team, benefit when they can get decent enough minutes from the rest of their lineup.
Vegas presents quite the challenge though. They have three lines that have all been rolling. Eichel is driving one, Karlsson is driving one and Stone is driving the third. That means Staal is going to once again lineup against high quality players. Does he have one more round in him?