2023 Stanley Cup Final Preview – Golden Knights Vs. Panthers

After nearly two months of frenzied postseason play, the 2023 Stanley Cup Final is finally in sight, with Game 1 of the championship series scheduled for June 3.

Representing the Western Conference are the Vegas Golden Knights, the West’s top seed in the regular season. On the way to the Final, the Golden Knights beat the Winnipeg Jets (4-1), the Edmonton Oilers (4-2), and the Dallas Stars (4-2). Despite only joining the league ahead of the 2017-18 season, the organization is already making its second Cup Final appearance in franchise history, the other being a loss to the Washington Capitals in its inaugural campaign.

On the other side of the bracket are the Florida Panthers, who have run roughshod over the rest of the Eastern Conference despite being the lowest-ranked team in this year’s playoffs. First, they toppled the Boston Bruins – the best regular season team in NHL history – in seven games, dumped the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games, and swept the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final. Their three playoff opponents ranked first, fourth, and second in the overall league standings, making their run to the Final one of the most improbable ever.

Both teams have vanquished worthy opponents on the path to the Final, and both groups will carry a great deal of belief into the final showdown. Now, let’s dive into some of the trends that may define the series and which players on either side could play a pivotal role in the outcome.

Panthers Transition Play vs. Golden Knights Zone Entry Defense

Though both teams employ aggressive attacking strategies both off the cycle and in transition, it’s the Golden Knights’ passiveness in defending zone entry attempts that could be a potential death knell against the quick-strike Panthers.

According to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, the Golden Knights allowed of the fifth-highest rate of zone entries against in the regular season. It’s not a good sign that three of the four teams which graded out worse in this department were the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, and Chicago Blackhawks, teams more preoccupied with clinching top odds for the Connor Bedard sweepstakes.

Even though strong in-zone defense is as important as defending the initial entry attempt, and the Golden Knights ranked above-average at allowing chances off of entries, the Panthers are well-suited to take advantage of Vegas’ willingness to cede the blueline.

The Panthers completed the fifth-highest rate of entries in the regular season while generating chances off of entries at the fourth-highest clip. Their opportunism on the counter-attack is a major reason they’re in the Final despite controlling well under 50% of all shots, scoring chances, high-danger chances, and expected goals at 5-on-5. If the Golden Knights are unprepared, they could face the same fate as the rest of Florida’s playoff foes.

Panthers Forecheck Wreaking Havoc in 2023 Playoffs

Everything that the Panthers do is done at a relentless pace. Apart from their breakneck transition play, their forecheck has served as a defensive shield and a secondary outlet for the offense. 

Only the Carolina Hurricanes have utilized a more aggressive forecheck this season, with the Panthers ranking second in forecheck pressure attempts and successful offensive zone puck recoveries. The Golden Knights are hardly slouches at carrying the puck out of their own zone and kickstarting breakouts, but the Panthers managed to harry and dismantle the Bruins’ breakout in Round 1 despite boasting the likes of Charlie McAvoy, Hampus Lindholm, and Dmitry Orlov on the backend.

It’s not difficult to imagine the high-octane Panthers causing issues for the Golden Knights, so it will be up to head coach Bruce Cassidy to find a way around their strategy.

2023 Stanley Cup Final Could Be Decided by Special Teams

Although what happens at 5-on-5 will impact the series, hockey is often a game of margins. Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Golden Knights and Panthers have had differing levels of success when it comes to special teams.

The Panthers have converted on 27.9% of their power plays (sixth in the playoffs), while the Golden Knights have struck on 18.5% of their opportunities with the man-advantage (ninth).

While it’s important to remember that any playoff-specific numbers are more susceptible to volatility due to the small sample size, both teams’ results on the penalty kill are worrying. In these playoffs, the Panthers (71.2%) and the Golden Knights (63%) rank 13th and 14th by penalty kill success, respectively. 

Of Vegas’ three matchups, the Stars posted the lowest power play conversion at 27.3%, suggesting that the Golden Knights’ abysmal results aren’t just a byproduct of playing the Oilers and their historic power play.

Both teams’ underlying numbers match the surface-level efficiency. The Panthers rank around the middle of the pack in terms of powerplay scoring chances generated, while the Golden Knights rank near the bottom. The same is true on the penalty kill, where both teams have been near the bottom in allowing shots and chances while shorthanded.

While poor penalty-killing performances haven’t sunk either team to date, hoping to outrun underwhelming special teams’ play leaves a lot to lady luck. Though it’s true for any four- to seven-game playoff series, both finalists could be undone by their shorthanded prowess (or lack thereof).

2023 Conn Smythe Trophy Power Rankings

Both the Golden Knights and the Panthers have progressed through the playoffs on the back of their stars but have also gotten contributions from their supporting casts. Ahead of Game 1, I have identified five players worthy of consideration for the Conn Smythe Trophy, the NHL’s award for playoff MVP. While others could feasibly climb into the conversation, I find it difficult to believe that someone other than these five players could win the Conn Smythe.

  1. Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers (14 GP – .935 SV% – 2.21 GAA – 19.7 GSAx)
  2. Matthew Tkachuk, Florida Panthers (16 GP – 9 G – 12 A – 21 PTS)
  3. Jack Eichel, Golden Knights (17 GP – 6 G – 12 A – 18 PTS)
  4. Adin Hill, Golden Knights (11 GP – .937 SV% – 2.07 GAA – 6.4 GSAx)
  5. Jonathan Marchessault, Golden Knights (17 GP – 9 G – 8 A – 17 PTS)

Bobrovsky, in particular, should be considered the frontrunner. After a good but not great performance in Round 1, the 34-year-old netminder has won eight of nine games and posted a .954 SV% in the process.

If Bobrovsky manages to maintain his current level of play through the Final, but the Panthers lose, there is a good chance he becomes the first player to win the Conn Smythe as a member of the losing squad (assuming they lose, of course) since Jean-Sebastien Giguere (Anaheim Ducks) did so in 2003.

Though Adin Hill has performed admirably since taking over from Laurent Brossoit earlier in the playoffs, and Jonathan Marchessault leads the playoffs in even-strength points (15), it’s a battle between a pair of star American forwards that defines the Conn Smythe discussion behind Bobrovsky.

A part of the 2022 offseason blockbuster trade between the Panthers and the Calgary Flames, Matthew Tkachuk has made everyone re-evaluate the deal with his play in the 2023 Playoffs. He’s currently second in playoff scoring and is tied for the lead in game-winning goals (four), scoring three against the Hurricanes in the Conference Final alone. His clutch play and engaging personality have expanded his popularity outside the hockey community, and he’s a big reason why they’re in this position.

Center Jack Eichel joined the Golden Knights after a trade with the Buffalo Sabres ended a saga revolving around his preferred treatment for a herniated disc in his neck. He got the trade and the surgery he wanted and finally looks like the Eichel many envisioned ahead of his draft year in 2015. He leads the team in scoring and has been a two-way fiend, driving Vegas’ transition game and expertly fulfilling his defensive duties.

Whichever of the listed players ends up winning, it’ll be a deserved victory. The story of the 2023 NHL Playoffs cannot be told without the primary trio, and each one would significantly bolster their career legacy by winning the Conn Smythe.

History Awaits Winner of 2023 Stanley Cup Final

Regardless of which team ultimately emerges victorious, the winner of the series will claim the first Stanley Cup in their franchise’s history. 

The Golden Knights have played (83) and won the second-most playoff games (50) over six seasons since joining the NHL in 2018 as the league’s 31st franchise. Including this postseason, they have reached the Conference Final on three occasions, made two appearances in the Final, and could add a title in the next month. 

Although few other franchises can match that level of success, the Golden Knights risk receiving the label of playoff chokers if they do not win the series. It’s a struggle similar to the plight of the Joe Thornton-era San Jose Sharks, another Western Conference powerhouse that failed to win the Stanley Cup after years of regular-season excellence.

The Panthers have little to lose as the lowest-ranked regular-season team in this year’s playoffs. They’ve upset some of the league’s top teams en route to a surprise Cup Final appearance and are now four wins away from the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Their first appearance (1996) ended in a sweep, but they can enshrine themselves in the history books one year after crashing out of the playoffs despite winning the Presidents’ Trophy.

Given what we’ve seen to this point of the postseason, claiming that either team will win the Cup with ease is illogical. Although I risk looking foolish, I’m betting on Bobrovsky reverting to his sub-par form from the rest of his Panthers tenure and the Golden Knights taking care of business as the stronger team.

Prediction: Golden Knights win the series 4-2

Data courtesy of AllThreeZonesMoneyPuckNatural Stat Trick, and the NHL.

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About Marko Zlomislic 100 Articles
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science. When not covering the Seattle Kraken for Oregon Sports News, Marko can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood. You can yell at him by following him on Twitter or via email at mzlomislic97@gmail.com. He also regularly produces content for The Hockey Writers.