A year ago, the Golden Knights were on the outside looking in for the 2022 NHL playoffs.
Two months ago, the defending Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers were on life support to make the 2023 playoffs.
Now here we are, with the Panthers and Golden Knights set to meet in the Stanley Cup Final.
As we look back at the past 12 months and how they led us to this point, we have to come to terms with the fact that Vegas never should have missed the playoffs a year ago — felled only by massive injuries — and that the Panthers’ regular season in 2022-23 might have been just as misleading. Florida’s 122-point 2021-22 regular season was inflated by 13 wins in three-on-three overtime plus three shootout wins, but certainly, it was also better than the team that almost missed the postseason this year. Somewhere in between lay a 100-point Panthers team that needed a few months to adjust to key roster moves and new coach Paul Maurice.
And so here we are, the Knights back in the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in their six-year history and the Panthers in the Final for the second time in franchise history after upsets over three of the four best teams from the regular season: the No. 1 Bruins (135 points), No. 4 Leafs (111) and No. 2 Hurricanes (113).
So yes, the Golden Knights (tied with Toronto at No. 4, 111 points) are favored, but I mean, do you think that really computes in the Panthers dressing room?
As I have in the past, I reached out to rival NHL front-office executives and head coaches to get their picks and see what they think about this matchup.
Here are their answers (all via text message, some edited for clarity).
Team exec No. 1
In order to win the Stanley Cup, a team will need to have most of the following:
• At least one hard-fought series where the team overcomes adversity. Now the belief sets in … vs. Boston ✅
• At least one short series … vs. Toronto and Carolina ✅✅
• Have the core of the lineup stay healthy ✅
• Great goaltending ✅
• Get a little bit of luck … Brad Marchand’s breakaway ✅
• Have the “It” factor ✅
Florida is feeling it. They are on an incredible run. Their coaches are dialed in … The team is playing with great structure. Their high-end players are playing at an elite level and they have confidence about them that’s necessary to win the Cup.
Team exec No. 2
I think Vegas for two reasons. One, I think their defense is very strong, and two, the way Jack Eichel has elevated his game. If he keeps playing like this, they will be tough to beat!
Team exec No. 3
Really like Florida and what they are doing. Love how they play. It is not a surprise or shock. They did win the Presidents’ Trophy last year. They are built for the playoffs. Built for playing against a team for 10 days straight. Getting unreal goaltending and huge play from their top guys. They are real good with the “game within the game” stuff.
But I’m picking Vegas. Veteran team that has been knocking at the door for a few years. Team plays heavy with big D. Can play it any which way you want. Balanced team that plays everyone. Team has been through adversity. Hard to get to the scoring area versus Vegas, yet they don’t take many penalties. They too are built for the long haul.
Team exec No. 4
Vegas. This might be the toughest series of these playoffs for Florida to get to the net, based on the makeup of Vegas’ strong defense core. Vegas in 6.
Team exec No. 5
I would say Florida in six. Tkachuk seems to be at a different level, and he’s grabbed that team and pulled them along with him. Bobrovsky needs to stay hot, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. The big unknown is if having more rest helps them get fresher or puts some rust on them.
Team exec No. 6
God! (Picking) Vegas but Florida beat every prediction so far. Why Vegas? Size of their D and depth up front.
Team exec No. 7
Florida. Built for the playoffs, and the goaltender can be elite.
Team exec No. 8
Hard to go against Florida, but I have to. The Vegas D is better, and the goalie is doing a great Bob imitation. Vegas in 7.
Team exec No. 9
Vegas in 6. Both teams have obviously been incredibly impressive through three rounds. To me, Vegas is just the deeper team at both forward and defense. Bobrovsky is the X-factor, but I think he’ll have to earn the Conn Smythe for Florida to take home the Cup.
Team exec No. 10
Compelling matchup. Vegas will give Florida their toughest matchup since Bruins in Round 1. I like Vegas’ depth up front, and they have the best D corps in the series. If (Adin) Hill can negate Bobrovsky’s edge in goal and Vegas can do what no team in the East has done — control Tkachuk — they’ll win.
Team exec No. 11
Florida in six. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they win it in four or five. They have so much momentum, they have players who can deliver in big moments and if Bobrovsky maintains vintage Bob form, there is no reason to bet against them. Vegas is very good, but are they any better than the teams the Panthers have already dispatched? Florida keeps the momentum going and finishes the job.
Team exec No. 12
Obviously, Bob is the X-factor. Reminds me of L.A. in 2012, getting in as the eight seed. Vegas has the better team, though, so over a seven-game series, I think Vegas takes it.
Team exec No. 13
Vegas in six, because the Vegas defense will neutralize the Florida cycle game, and the fourth line of Vegas will make a difference versus Florida’s fourth line.
Head coach No. 1
Very excited to see that matchup. Got to go with the hot goalie and the elite game-breaker right now in Bob and Tkachuk. Could flip a coin on this one, though.
Head coach No. 2
I think Vegas wins because they are the better defensive team. Florida, however, had their best players playing great which makes it such a tough call. Vegas in seven.
Head coach No. 3
I would go Vegas in seven. I think depth and defensive play will prevail. Unless goaltending lets them down.
Head coach No. 4
Florida has had a lot of things go right during their playoff run and have the look of a team of destiny. They have embraced the little things that are important at this time of year.
Vegas has had a very steady year, led the Pacific Division and Western Conference for most of the season, had a productive trade deadline, returned their captain and emotional catalyst for the playoffs. They are firing on a lot of cylinders.
Head coach No. 5
I’m taking Florida. Size, speed and Bobrovsky in goal.
Head coach No. 6
I predict Florida will win. They have momentum, and I like the way they are playing. Lots of grit, doing all the little things right. Bob is playing great in net. Also, Tkachuk is the difference, coming up big in every game.
Head coach No. 7
I think Vegas wins in six games. Their D is the difference in the series. Their fifth and sixth defensemen are probably the best in the league. That will be the difference.
For those counting at home, that’s 12 people taking Vegas, seven Florida, and one pick ’em.
One consistent factor in those picking the Golden Knights is that their blue line is big and strong and deep. The feeling is that it presents the biggest challenge yet to Florida’s forwards. Maybe that’s true. But I would also point out that the Panthers beat some pretty deep defensive corps in Carolina and Boston in getting here.
The biggest concern for me with the Panthers is rust. Teams coming off long breaks often struggle to find their footing quickly enough. I don’t think you can discount what having nine days between games might mean for Florida.
Those picking the Panthers see a clear advantage in goal with Sergei Bobrovsky over Adin Hill. And while Hill did have a couple of goals allowed he wanted back in the Western Conference final, he also beat the established star in Dallas netminder Jake Oettinger.
So you see how you can talk yourself into reasons for picking either team.
I’ve got 2012 No. 8 seed L.A. Kings vibes here. Give me Florida to win the Stanley Cup in six games over Vegas.
Of course, I’m also the idiot who picked a Toronto-Edmonton Stanley Cup Final before the playoffs, so take that with a grain of salt!
(Photo of Aleksander Barkov, Nicolas Roy and William Karlsson: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)