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Stanley Cup Final: X-factors, goalie confidence, predictions

From 32 teams starting in the 2022-23 NHL season, the Stanley Cup playoffs have gone from 16 to eight to four, and there are only two left.

The Stanley Cup Finals kick off on Saturday, June 3 as the Vegas Golden Knights host Game 1 against the Florida Panthers. Whichever team wins, it will be the first-ever championship for a franchise.

To help you catch up before the opening puck drop, we’ve got a mega preview, breaking down each team into five different categories that will help determine whether it will be Mark Stone or Aleksander Barkov hoisting the Cup this spring. .

Note: Kristen Shilton broke down the Panthers, while Ryan S. Clark profiled the Golden Knights.

Stanley Cup Final: X-factors, goalie confidence, predictionsStanley Cup Final: X-factors, goalie confidence, predictions

How they got here: Defeated the Boston Bruins 4-3; defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1; Defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 4-0

Goalie confidence rating: 9.5/10

Sergei Bobrovsky is playing the best hockey of his playoff career. It’s a tall order given Bobrovsky’s pedigree, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner.

But not only did Bobrovsky surpass his own previous highs, he steadily improved throughout the playoffs. Bobrovsky’s masterful performance in the Eastern Conference Finals – 4-0-0 record, .966 save percentage and 1.12 goals-against average, plus a first-ever playoff shutout – propelled the Panthers to a quick sweep of Carolina. The three goals Bobrovsky allowed in Game 4 were the most he had given up since Florida’s first-round series against Boston.

The statistics are staggering. Bobrovsky is magnificent. The Cup final will be another opportunity for him to shine.

What we’ve learned about this team so far

Florida plays by its own rules — and is having a great time doing it. It’s been the Panthers’ secret sauce ever since they got their last-minute ticket to the playoffs. They really approach every game with a fun-oriented attitude; there’s no pressure or expectations weighing them down, and that’s a gift in itself.

Florida is also a superior team to the one talked about throughout the regular season. The Panthers can win tight, heavy defensive battles or more open, amplified battles offensively. They’re deep, they’re dangerous, and most importantly, the Panthers know exactly who they are. And clearly, they knew it before anyone else. Regardless of how the final ended for Florida, this spring has been spectacular for a team of pundits previously left for dead.

Player who will be the key to the series

Beyond Bobrovsky? Matthew Tkachuk. He’s been The Guy in just about every big moment the Panthers have faced in the playoffs. Tkachuk scored three game-winning goals in the Conference Finals alone — two in overtime and one in Game 4 with less than five seconds left in regulation — and is second overall in the playoffs, with 21 points in 16 matches.

The fiery Florida forward is the rare player who can – and will continue to be – a threat on every shift, a 5-on-5 force and dangerous on the power play. The Panthers rely on Tkachuk to lead the team’s offense, and he hasn’t let them down yet by taking control and stepping in when needed.

Player who needs to step up

Florida’s many strengths include a depth of performers up front. This Stanley Cup Final is a chance for Eetu Luostarinen to do even more in this category.

This series could have long periods where the first two lines cancel each other out; Luostarinen is a solid two-way player who could break through from a bottom-six spot to generate some offense. He’s produced just two goals and six points in 16 playoff games so far, but has been a dependable defensive piece that coach Paul Maurice can move throughout the lineup. Now that the Panthers are at their peak, Luostarinen shouldn’t hold back from upping those stats and providing Florida with a true offensive presence on the third line.

Panthers special teams didn’t get their due

Florida has the best penalty kill in the playoffs (at 84%) since the start of its second-round streak against Toronto, allowing just four goals the last 25 times it was shorthanded. The Panthers’ power play has also been impeccable over that streak (30.4%), with at least one power-play goal in six of their last seven games.

Special teams success can literally make or break a team in the playoffs – Carolina was 2 for 14 against Florida on the power play; think that helped make them? The Panthers capitalized on their playoff chances, and that’s what will make them a complex foe every night of the Cup Final to come.



How Matthew Tkachuk completely transformed the Panthers

Kevin Weekes reviews key Panthers and Golden Knights players ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Stanley Cup Final: X-factors, goalie confidence, predictions

How they got here: Defeated the Winnipeg Jets 4-1; Defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-2; Defeated the Dallas Stars 4-2

Goalie confidence rating: 9.5/10

Adin Hill started May without a single playoff appearance on his resume, but he became one of the main reasons the Golden Knights reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in six years. .

Hill replaced Laurent Brossoit, who was injured in Game 3 in the second round, and has since become one of the Golden Knights’ most consistent players. He helped the Golden Knights wrap up the Western Conference Finals against the Stars with a 23-save shutout. Blanking the stars means Hill enters the Stanley Cup Final with a 7-3 record, 2.07 goals-against average and .937 save percentage while stopping more than 30 shots per game in seven of these matches.

What we’ve learned about this team so far

Enough was in place at the end of the regular season to suggest the Golden Knights had depth. The playoffs showed there are layers to the Golden Knights and how they operate.

All of their lines can consistently forecheck, with the notion that all of their combinations have their unique way of creating scoring chances. They have veteran defensive pairs, including one with Alec Martinez and Alex Pietrangelo who have three Stanley Cups combined. But the couple who have seen the most 5-on-5 minutes are Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud. Then, of course, there’s what Hill accomplished as the last goalkeeper to provide stability in the slot.

The players who will be the key to the series

One player who could be central to this discussion of the Golden Knights and their layers could be Jack Eichel. He gave them the No. 1 center who, under coach Bruce Cassidy, established himself as a two-way presence and one of the favorites to win the Conn Smythe. Cassidy also made the most of other strikers such as Ivan Barbashev, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone.

There is also a case for Pietrangelo. He plays in key situations, such as shorthanded and on the power play, while averaging more than 24 minutes per game – a split of nearly four minutes between him and Martinez, who is second in average ice time. .

Player who needs to step up

Does it really exist? Look throughout their range. They have received contributions that have been notable, such as those from their stars, and those that may not be appreciated in a way that makes players such as Michael Amadio, Keegan Kolesar, Nicolas Roy, Hague and Whitecloud so important to their setup.

Instead, it’s one particular unit that needs to step up: the penalty kill. The Golden Knights have only managed to kill penalties 63.0% of the time, which is why they enter the Cup Finals 14th among 16 postseason teams. This could become a big deal based on another trend: the Golden Knights have taken the second most penalty minutes during the playoffs.

Could this Stanley Cup Final change the way some front offices view first-year coaches?

Think back to last year’s story about practice and the Stanley Cup Finals. Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar and Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper are examples of why it can benefit offices to be more patient with their bench bosses. Cooper is the NHL’s longest-serving coach while Bednar was third.

Fast forward to that Cup final. Cassidy and Maurice bolstered hopes that playoff-caliber teams with first-year coaches can win the Stanley Cup. Of course, that comes with context. Cassidy came to Vegas after reaching the playoffs in six consecutive seasons with the Bruins, while reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2019. Paul Maurice reached the playoffs in his last four full seasons in addition to having appeared in the Stanley Cup Final (2002, with the Hurricanes) as well. Also, don’t forget what Pete DeBoer did in his first season with the Stars. These are three of the four conference finalists who had first-year coaches.

The Golden Knights had to wonder if they could struggle after their first non-playoff spring. Some have wondered if the Panthers could ever make it past the second round. The Stars seemed lost in a central division filled with monsters. But going with a new voice – the LAW fresh voice – all three pushed over the hump this season.


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