The 2023 Stanley Cup Final begins with Game 1 between the Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers on Saturday night.
As a service to those fans who haven’t been following every shot, save and overtime thriller of the 2023 NHL postseason, here is the lapsed fan’s guide to the Stanley Cup Final — a quick primer on the conference champs, how they got here and what to look out for in the series.
More: Playoff Central
Tale of the tape
Conn Smythe Watch
When was the last time these teams were in the Stanley Cup Final?
The Panthers last played for the Stanley Cup in 1996, the third year of their existence, when they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche.
The Golden Knights made the Stanley Cup Final in the first season of their existence, losing to the Washington Capitals in 2018.
Do they have history?
On the ice, not really. The Golden Knights are 6-3-1 against Florida all-time, including 5-0 in Vegas. Off the ice, they do have one unique connection. During the 2017 expansion draft, then-Panthers GM Dale Tallon exposed forward Jonathan Marchessault, who was coming off a 30-goal season. That was enticement for the Golden Knights to then trade for forward Reilly Smith, whose five-year contract extension was set to kick in that season for Florida.
It would go down as one of the biggest blunders of the expansion draft. Marchessault and Smith became foundational players for Vegas and remain on the team to this day. Marchessault is their second leading scorer in the playoffs and has scored 348 points, including 150 goals, in 432 games with Vegas.
How are the Panthers playing for the Stanley Cup?
The team couldn’t repeat its results from last season, dropping 30 points in the standings and needing a Pittsburgh Penguins collapse at the end of the season to secure the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Their reward: a first-round meeting with the Boston Bruins, who had just set new NHL records for wins (65) and points (135) in a single season.
But the Panthers knew better than anyone that winning the President’s Trophy doesn’t promise anything in the postseason. Down 3-1 to the Bruins, star forward Matthew Tkachuk scored an overtime goal in Game 5 on the road to give Florida new life. Their wild 7-5 win back in Sunrise led to a Game 7 in Boston, where forward Carter Verhaeghe’s overtime goal left the Bruins and the rest of TD Garden in stunned silence, completing one of the biggest upsets in Stanley Cup playoffs history.
The Panthers never looked back after that, going 11-1 to win the Eastern Conference in spectacular fashion.
The Toronto Maple Leafs won their first playoff series since 2004 before meeting Florida, and many felt the lifting of their burden could lead to their first Stanley Cup win since 1967. The Panthers had other plans, thanks to goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
He entered the postseason in Game 3 against the Bruins after Alex Lyon earned the first three starts in that series. In Game 1 and 2 in Toronto, he stopped 69 of 73 shots to lead Florida in two straight wins. They’d take the series in five games. A week later, Toronto parted ways with its general manager Kyle Dubas.
To kick off the Eastern Conference final, the Panthers and the Carolina Hurricanes played one of the most memorable games in NHL history: a four-overtime thriller totaling 139 minutes and 47 seconds, the sixth-longest game in NHL history. Tkachuk scored the game-winner in Game 1; he’d do the same in overtime of Game 2 and then again with five seconds left in regulation in Game 4 to complete a sweep of the Hurricanes.
“Who else, right?” defenseman Aaron Ekblad said of Tkachuk. “What he’s done [this season] is unexplainable.”
Where did playoff hero Matthew Tkachuk come from?
The last 12 months have been quite a ride for the Panthers. They won the President’s Trophy in 2021-22 with the NHL’s best regular-season record and then won their first playoff round since 1996. But then the Tampa Bay Lightning swept the Panthers in Round 2, which meant the end for Florida interim head coach Andrew Brunette. Florida hired former Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice, who has now coached the fourth most games in NHL history (1,767).
But the real stunner last offseason was a blockbuster trade: Florida sent leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau and top-pairing defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames for star winger Tkachuk, who had informed them that he didn’t intend to sign another contract with the team.
Florida GM Bill Zito had been talking with Huberdeau on an extension, but he said that Tkachuk was a “unicorn” player: Offensively dominant, defensively strong, an agitator on the ice and a superstar personality off the ice.
Tkachuk immediately inked an eight-year deal when traded to the Panthers, giving Florida a 25-year-old player coming off a 100-point season.
He had 109 points for Florida, and is a finalist for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
The Panthers have a collection of strong offensive players. Captain Aleksander Barkov is considered one of the NHL’s most complete talents. Forwards Sam Reinhart (seven goals), Verhaeghe (six goals) and Sam Bennett (four goals) have been playoff difference-makers.
But Tkachuk has blossomed into a superstar during the playoffs, from his goal celebrations to his recent hang with Shaq and Charles Barkley on TNT’s NBA pregame show. He has been a leader on the ice and their motivator off the ice, keeping the team in its underdog mindset, like when he said of facing Boston: “It’s going to take pretty much a perfect effort to win one game in the series against everything they have over there.”
They’d win four of them.
How Matthew Tkachuk has completely transformed the Panthers
Kevin Weekes examines key players for the Panthers and Golden Knights ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
How are the Golden Knights playing for the Stanley Cup?
After missing the playoffs for the first time in their short franchise history in 2021-22, the Golden Knights fired head coach Pete DeBoer and hired Bruce Cassidy, who had just been axed by the Bruins. They’d finish with 111 points, atop both the Pacific Division and the Western Conference as a whole.
Cassidy helped bring a better defensive structure to the Knights, which certainly helped them during a tumultuous year with their goaltending. Starter Robin Lehner missed the season with offseason hip surgery. The Knights used five goalies in the regular season, from rookie Logan Thompson to former Los Angeles Kings star Jonathan Quick. Laurent Brossoit started in the playoffs for Vegas before he was injured in the second round, leading to Adin Hill taking the crease.
The Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final has been dominant at times, but without the epic moments that defined the Panthers’ run in the East.
They made short work of the Winnipeg Jets in the first round, taking the series against an injury-diminished opponent in five games. The Edmonton Oilers were next, as stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl sought their first Stanley Cup. Players like center William Karlsson mitigated the Edmonton superstars’ impact — Draisaitl had only one assist in the last four games of the series — while the Knights outscored the Oilers 15-9 at even strength to earn a six-game series win.
“Our 5-on-5 game, I think it’s been good all year,” Marchessault said. “We were down 1-0 and 2-1 quite often in that series and we battled back.”
In the Western Conference final, they met an old friend: DeBoer, now coaching the Dallas Stars, who eliminated the Seattle Kraken in seven games. Vegas won two overtime games at home to open the series and then humiliated the Stars on the road in Game 3. The Golden Knights scored three times in the first 7:10 of the game, thanks in part to Dallas captain Jamie Benn’s ejection for cross-checking Vegas captain Mark Stone in the jaw, for which he earned a two-game suspension. They chased starter Jake Oettinger and cruised to a 3-0 series lead.
The Stars battled back without their captain to win twice, but he returned in Game 6 only to see the Golden Knights humble them again with three first-period goals en route to a 6-0 shutout for Hill and a six-game series win.
“I think Vegas went to another level,” DeBoer said.
The next level? Playing for the Cup for the second time.
Are these the same Knights as the expansion team that made the Final?
Back in 2018, the expansion Golden Knights shocked the sports world by making the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Capitals. Of course, the sports world at large didn’t realize that the NHL’s changes to its expansion draft rules allowed Vegas to put together a pretty solid team — both in selecting players and leveraging those rules to force teams into unbalanced trades.
The general manager from that team, George McPhee, is now president of hockey operations. His assistant GM back then, Kelly McCrimmon, is now the general manager. Six current Golden Knights played during that remarkable postseason: Forwards William Carrier, Karlsson, Smith and Marchessault; as well as defensemen Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore.
“The first trip was just kind of overwhelming. You’ve never been there before. Maybe you took it for granted a little bit back then,” Karlsson said after Vegas eliminated Dallas. “Five years later, there’s been ups and downs. You realize that this opportunity doesn’t come around too often.”
The intervening years saw the Golden Knights make some tough choices with beloved personnel from that “Golden Misfits” team, jettisoning players like Marc-Andre Fleury, Nate Schmidt and Alex Tuch. But in the process, they added big-contract stars from other teams like defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and center Jack Eichel.
How the Panthers-Golden Knights Stanley Cup Final came to be
Relive the playoff paths that the Panthers and the Golden Knights took to make it to the Stanley Cup Final.
What’s the most compelling matchup in the Stanley Cup Final?
The superficial answer is Eichel vs. Tkachuk, as two of the biggest American-born stars in the NHL face off for their first Stanley Cup wins — the kind of matchup that has fans crossing their fingers that the NHL returns to the Winter Olympics in 2026, to join a generation of American stars as teammates.
But the most compelling matchup of the Final is in goal. Bobrovsky, or “Playoff Bob” as he’s known, has gone 11-2 with a .935 save percentage and a 2.21 goals-against average. He’s been absolutely dominant for the last two rounds, allowing two goals or fewer in eight of nine games. He signed a monster seven-year, $70 million contract in 2019 that the two-time Vezina Trophy winner hadn’t lived up to yet. Winning the Stanley Cup would certainly rewrite that narrative.
On the other side of the ice is 27-year-old Canadian-born goalie Adin Hill. He’s never been a starter. He played 27 games in the regular season. It’s his crease now because Brossoit was hurt in Game 3 against Edmonton, but Hill has owned it: 7-3 with a .937 save percentage and a 2.07 goals-against average.
“I’ve worked very hard my whole life to get to the NHL and to be here,” Hill said. “It’s exciting being on a team that’s this good and has chance to really do it all, I’m grateful and I’m excited about it.”
What’s the biggest X factor in the series?
It has to be rust vs. rest for the Panthers.
The Panthers last played on May 24. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Panthers’ nine-day break between games before the Stanley Cup Final is tied for the fourth longest in NHL history. The teams ahead of them are the 1919 Montreal Canadiens, whose Final was cancelled after five games because of the flu epidemic; and the 2019 Boston Bruins and 2003 Anaheim Ducks, who both lost the Cup in seven games.
Florida has been riding a wave of momentum. They win a four-overtime game and then come back to win another overtime game, that kind of thing. Maurice acknowledged that this break probably breaks that momentum, too.
“There’s a challenge to this. You can’t stay in that emotional environment that you are,” he said. Yet there’s also a benefit to it that the Knights won’t have.
“But an opportunity is to heal up players,” Maurice said. “We’ll take the rest. If it takes us a while to get into it, we have to hold water until we do.”
Who are the top playoff MVP candidates?
The Conn Smythe Trophy is based on a player’s performance during the entire postseason, not just the championship round. The award is voted on by an 18-person panel of Professional Hockey Writers Association members.
In our poll of potential voters, Tkachuk had a slight lead on Bobrovsky on the Panthers’ side. Eichel lead all Golden Knights players, followed by Marchessault, Hill and Karlsson.
Keep in mind the Conn Smythe has been awarded to a player on the losing team in the Stanley Cup Final five times, although not since Jean-Sebastien Giguere in 2003.
Finally, should this be a competitive series?
Absolutely. These are two teams that compete hard, play physically and have dominated opponents during their respective runs. The Golden Knights have been building to this moment since they entered the league in 2017 — their owner, Bill Foley, said at the time that he wanted to win a Stanley Cup within six years. The Panthers could be a team of destiny based on their journey to the Final.
Whoever wins, it’ll be for the first time, and that alone makes for a fascinating series.