Friday, September 22 2023

There will be a first-time Stanley Cup champion.

After 82 regular-season games and three rounds of the playoffs, the Stanley Cup Final begins Saturday between the Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers.

Vegas will be making its first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 2018, its first season in the NHL, while Florida returns for the first time since 1996.

In his first season as coach of the Golden Knights, Bruce Cassidy led his team to a 51-22-9 record, tops in the Western Conference. This came after a 2021-22 season in which an injury-ravaged Vegas squad missed the playoffs after making an aggressive trade for Jack Eichel. The Golden Knights dealt with numerous injuries this year, notably to captain Mark Stone and goalie Robin Lehner, who missed the season. They beat the Winnipeg Jets (five games), Edmonton Oilers (six games) and Dallas Stars (six games) to reach the final.

The Panthers, meanwhile, finished with a 42-32-8 record and the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. It was a disappointing campaign for a team that finished with the most points in 2021-22. They made changes after getting swept in the second round, trading a big package for Matthew Tkachuk (21 points, four game-winning goals in playoffs) and hiring coach Paul Maurice. They knocked off the historic Boston Bruins (seven games), Toronto Maple Leafs (five games) and Carolina Hurricanes (four games).

Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) blocks a shot from Vegas Golden Knights center Ivan Barbashev (49) during a game in March.Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) blocks a shot from Vegas Golden Knights center Ivan Barbashev (49) during a game in March.

Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) blocks a shot from Vegas Golden Knights center Ivan Barbashev (49) during a game in March.

Who do USA TODAY Sports’ experts predict will win it all?

Panthers in six. It is time for me to stop underestimating the Panthers. Florida has not played since May 24, a key for the freshness of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who has posted a .935 save percentage in the playoffs. While rust could come into play, this team has the makeup and mindset to turn on the switch by Game 1. Matthew Tkachuk has been a beast, Aleksander Barkov is a force at center and Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour are stalwarts on defense. The team of destiny vibes also point me in the Panthers’ direction. — Jimmy Hascup


Golden Knights in six. I have somehow picked the wrong result for five of the six playoff series these teams have played, so it would not be an exaggeration to say I absolutely did not see this Cup Final coming. The Panthers have been the story of the playoffs to this point, and while I agree with Jimmy that it seems like the Panthers are a team of destiny, I just think the Golden Knights are better. Vegas has somehow flown under the radar despite being the West’s No. 1 seed, but the Golden Knights have been mighty impressive. They have averaged more goals per game in the playoffs than the Panthers (3.65 to 3.13), doing it with an attack that comes at you in waves (six players with at least six goals). They have allowed fewer goals per game in the playoffs than the Panthers (2.65 to 2.69), limiting potent Edmonton and Dallas attacks the past few rounds, preventing Game 7s with impressive closeout victories on the road. Golden Knights goaltender Adin Hill even has a higher save percentage in the playoffs since he got into the lineup than the red-hot Bobrovsky. The Panthers have made me look like a fool for picking against them, no doubt; but the Golden Knights have, too. I’ll side with the team with home ice in what should be a fun Final. — Jace Evans

Panthers in six: The Panthers proved me wrong all three times I picked against them. It’s time to pick them. They’re one year removed from winning the Presidents’ Trophy and the 2021 Colorado Avalanche and 2019 Tampa Bay Lightning won the Cup one season after they clinched the league’s top record. Not having home-ice advantage hasn’t bothered the Panthers so far as they’re 8-1 on the road, losing just the playoff opener. They’re also 6-0 in overtime. The Golden Knights are deep and dangerous, but so is Florida. In addition to Tkachuk and Barkov, the Panthers get offense from Carter Verhaeghe, Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett. — Mike Brehm

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stanley Cup picks: Golden Knights, Panthers NHL playoff predictions

Source: Yahoo Sports


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