In this golden era of information, many rational consumers are looking to discount what may be plainly obvious to others. Through the opening two games of the Stanley Cup Final, the Vegas Golden Knights are proving they are a powerhouse that was hiding in plain sight, which may seem silly when you consider they entered as the West’s top seed with 111 regular season points.
Vegas thumped Florida 7-2 in Game 2 and tied a finals record for most goals through the opening two games of a series after winning 5-2 on Saturday. Parsing through advanced stats, the eye test and prevailing narratives, the Golden Knights were overlooked. They were a sub-par shot-creation team that controlled fewer expected goals at 5-on-5 than the Ottawa Senators during the regular season. Vegas won the Pacific Division by two points, but in a form of delicious irony, it wasn’t the preferred candidate set by the oddsmakers at casinos down the street, who almost assuredly thought Edmonton would win the West. This is all moot now, you’d suppose.
The three maxims of winning a Stanley Cup as currently understood are to receive surplus scoring from your top players, rely on your depth players who have previous Cup-winning experience and for your goaltender to perform at an elite level. During Monday’s rout, Jonathan Marchessault scored his 11th and 12th goals of the playoffs, Jack Eichel continued his extraordinary playoff run with two assists, Brett Howden added a brace of his own, while Adin Hill shut the door on a Panthers’ attack that created shots relentlessly but were left flummoxed. All three maxims were upheld by the Golden Knights.
The point streak marches on for Jonathan Marchessault, who got the @GoldenKnights on the board and matched a franchise record in the process. #StanleyCup #NHLStats: https://t.co/sZO3gF6lHu https://t.co/zp7s1NUdyt
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) June 6, 2023
Marchessault is shooting his way into the Conn Smythe conversation by catching fire during the final weeks of the postseason, while Eichel’s playoff debut is proving to be every bit worth the wait. Mark Stone was the hero in Game 1, and Howden’s two goals should keep him in this conversation, but Marchessault, Eichel and Hill all outshone the Panthers’ counterparts. Alec Martinez, who won two Cups with the Los Angeles Kings and scoring the series winner in 2014, got his first goal of the playoffs and continued to form a steady partnership with Alex Pietrangelo, who captained the Blues to the Cup in 2019. Star power, experience and elite goaltending. Vegas is getting it all, while Florida travels home, undeterred to be sure, but with plenty of adjustments to be made.
Yes, the Panthers snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, but this is no Cinderella run and if they’re running on perceived slights as fuel, the tank is empty. It was always flimsy to consider last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winner to be a Cinderella story, even if it knocked off a historic juggernaut in the Bruins, before defeating the Maple Leafs and Hurricanes in rapid succession, all of whom were at least 19 points ahead of them during the regular season. They too have star power (Matthew Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov), depth with Cup-winning experience (Eric Staal) and elite goaltending.
Well, maybe scratch that last part.
Vegas chased Sergei Bobrovsky from the contest under eight minutes into the second period and it didn’t seem to matter all too much. Bobrovsky entered the series as the Conn Smythe favourite, vaulting into historic territory before coming crashing down at the most inopportune time. Martinez and Roy both scored goals that were Bobrovsky’s fault and he didn’t present the Panthers with an opportunity to win. Panthers head coach Paul Maurice mercifully pulled the 34-year-old in favour of Alex Lyon, ostensibly to wake the rest of his team up. We don’t imagine Lyon to Bobrovsky’s place in Game 3, but if the Panthers are to win the next four of four or five games, it will need a string of all-world performances from the two-time Vezina Trophy winner again.
Arbitrary endpoints can be manipulated, but at this stage, it’s certainly worth pointing out that the Golden Knights posted a 22-4-5 record since February 1, second only to the historic Bruins. Vegas also posted a 14-3-3 record after March 4 — the day after the trade deadline, this isn’t an arbitrary line in the sand — the third-best record during that span. It wasn’t a sexy pick and its middling possession numbers allowed those prone to deeper introspection to overlook the No. 1 seed Golden Knights. They are two wins away from being able to tell all of us nerds to touch grass and maybe play some slots at the casino.
Florida is beginning to finally show holes in its facade. The previously unflappable Tkachuk delivered a gigantic hit on Eichel, then was goaded into a post-hit scrum that earned him a two-minute minor and a ten-minute misconduct. Golden Knights forward Ivan Barbashev also earned a two-and-ten, canceling each other out. Eichel was slow to get up. But when Eichel returned for the third period, the Golden Knights resumed their domination of the Panthers, as the 26-year-old calmly found Marchessault for his second goal of the evening.
Tkachuk, who has proven to be the NHL’s most clutch player, completely lost his cool and was given a second misconduct in the third period, ending his evening prematurely. Eric Staal followed him to the locker room shortly thereafter. We witnessed an unraveling from the Panthers. And though it faced elimination at the hands of a historically dominant Bruins team earlier this spring, the impending task may prove to be too tall for even these giant-killers.
As for the Golden Knights, maybe we were foolish all along to discount a No. 1 seed in plain sight. It doesn’t have to be sexy, but their star players are rising to the occasion, they have a wealth of Cup-proven experience in Pietrangelo, Martinez, Barbashev, Stephenson, and Hill is outdueling Bobrovsky, who was thought to be unbeatable two weeks ago. Three maxims, two more wins, that’s all left to prove for the Golden Knights.