The Panthers needed much longer to get back, reaching for the first time since 1996, while the Golden Knights are making their second appearance in the franchise’s sixth season.
Both teams feature strong top scoring lines and impressive goaltending. The Golden Knights’ defense is excellent at blocking shots while the Panthers’ defense chips in more goals. Vegas has the better offensive numbers while Florida has better special teams. The Golden Knights have four former Stanley Cup winners among their regulars while the Panthers have two.
STANLEY CUP PICKS Golden Knights, Panthers battle for first title
So which team prevails and wins its first Stanley Cup title? Here are 10 players, five from each team, who will have a major impact on winning the series:
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
The No. 2 overall pick of 2015 hadn’t made the playoffs before this season, and he’s making the most of it. He’s the No. 2 scorer in the Final (18 points) behind Florida’s Matthew Tkachuk (21 points). Eichel has had three three-point games and one other multipoint game.
The Golden Knights missed the playoffs last season because of Stone’s prolonged injury absence. They made the Final this year because their captain was able to return from another prolonged absence. In addition to his 15 points, he’s a strong defensive presence (the winger is a four-time finalist for the Selke Trophy). He leads the playoffs with 22 takeaways and has only three giveaways.
Goalie Adin Hill
Perhaps goalie coach Sean Burke is the hero here. The Golden Knights didn’t have Robin Lehner all season, used five goalies and still won the Pacific Division title. Hill, who was acquired from the San Jose Sharks because of Lehner’s season-ending surgery, has fit in seamlessly since he replaced injured Laurent Brossoit in the second round. He has two shutouts and a .937 save percentage. He stopped 70 of 73 shots in the two regular-season games against the Panthers, going 1-1.
Marchessault had just two points in his first seven playoff games. Now, he’s the hottest player in the postseason. He has all nine of his playoff goals in the past 10 games, along with four assists. He has a team-leading three game-winning goals. Marchessault has been with the Golden Knights since the beginning after being left unprotected by the Panthers in the expansion draft.
Karlsson is another original Golden Knight. He has never come close to matching his 43 goals during his first season in Vegas, but he is the leading goal scorer in the Final with 10. Like Stone, he’s a solid two-way player. Players taken in the expansion draft scored four of the Golden Knights’ six goals in the series-clinching win against the Dallas Stars. Those players will be important because of their previous experience in the Final.
Forward Matthew Tkachuk
General manager Bill Zito gave up 115-point scorer Jonathan Huberdeau and top-two defenseman MacKenzie Weegar in the blockbuster Tkachuk trade, and the Panthers won big. Tkachuk “breathes hockey,” according to his captain. He’s gritty, agitates and gets clutch goals. He scored three game-winners in the conference final, two in overtime and the series-clincher with 4.9 seconds left. He’s a front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy, and the Golden Knights will need to find a way to slow him down.
Can you win the Conn Smythe with one save? If Bobrovsky doesn’t stop Boston’s Brad Marchand in the dying seconds of Game 5, the Panthers’ postseason is over in the first round. He made it possible for Florida to rally and win that series, then was spectacular in the next two rounds. He had a 50-save and a 63-save effort and allowed two or fewer goals in eight consecutive games before giving up three in the Eastern Conference final clincher. Bobrovsky’s $10 million-a-year contract is no longer being talked about negatively as he looks more like the two-time Vezina Trophy winner he was earlier in his career.
The Panthers captain leads by example. He’s one of the top two-way centers in the league, having won the Selke Trophy in 2020-21 and finishing third in 2021-22. He centers the Panthers’ productive top line with Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair. He missed most of Game 3 of the Eastern final with an injury and returned in Game 4 with two assists, including on Tkachuk’s game-winner.
Bennett is like New York Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba. His ability to deliver devastating hits keeps the other team on guard. But he’s more than his 62 hits, which leads Florida forwards. He plays on Tkachuk’s line and on the top power-play unit, has 11 points and is second on the team in shots and first in penalty minutes. He can hurt a team in more ways than one.
The Weegar trade was a boon to Montour as his point total jumped from 37 to 73. He leads all playoff defensemen with six goals and 59 shots. He plays on the power play and kills penalties.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stanley Cup Final: 10 players who will decide Panthers-Golden Knights
Source: Yahoo Sports