Stanley Cup preview: Can Bobrovsky, Tkachuk stay hot? Will Panthers slow Eichel? And more.
The 2023 NHL champion will either be the Florida Panthers or Vegas Golden Knights.
The Panthers, the last team into the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs, and the Golden Knights are the last two teams standing. Game 1 of the 2023 Stanley Cup Final is Saturday (8 p.m., TNT) at T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nev.
Florida and Vegas split a pair of regular-season meetings, with each team winning its home game.
Here are five questions surrounding the matchup, with answers on what to expect in the Panthers-Golden Knights series:
Who has the edge in goal?
It’s the most simplistic place to start, but it’s also the only place to: Who will get better goaltending in the Stanley Cup Final?
It has to start here because neither team would be in the Cup Final if it wasn’t for its goaltender.
Star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is the favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy after saving 19.7 goals above expected in the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, according to MoneyPuck.com, and Vegas goaltender Adin Hill ranks third in the postseason with 6.4 goals saved above expected.
The challenge for Bobrovsky, who won a pair of Vezina Trophies last decade and has mostly come nowhere close to replicating his peak performance since joining the Panthers in 2019, is handling a 10-day break between games. The 34-year-old Russian was clearly in a rhythm in the Eastern Conference finals, but Florida’s sweep of the Hurricanes left him sitting around and waiting for more than a week, knocked out of the every-other-day routine goalies find favorable in the Cup playoffs.
Ultimately, there won’t be any way to predict how the goaltending battle will unfold until Game 1 starts this weekend. Postseason goaltending, as goaltender Alex Lyon said Sunday, is the “most enigmatic thing in the world.”
How will the Panthers’ match Jack Eichel’s line?
Superstar right wing Matthew Tkachuk has probably been the best skater of the playoffs so far and his line is among the best in the postseason, too. Vegas, however, probably has the single best line of the playoffs so far.
The Golden Knights have an 8.9-5.8 edge in expected goals when star center Jack Eichel, and wingers Ivan Barbashev and Jonathan Marchessault are on the ice together. Their line is the only one in the playoffs to log at least 130 minutes of time on ice with a 60% share of expected goals.
The Panthers have done a great job of shutting down high-powered top lines in this postseason, by trotting out All-Star center Aleksander Barkov as a defensive stopper — he ranks second in the playoffs in takeaways. Vegas’ top group is different from the Maple Leafs’, though — Eichel is much closer to Barkov, as a two-way forward, rather than just being a dangerous goal scorer.
These teams are the top two in the playoffs in takeaways.
Coach Paul Maurice insists there won’t be too many hard matchups, at least with forward lines, and he probably doesn’t have to. Each of Florida’s top three lines has logged at least 130 minutes in this postseason and none has allowed more than four goals and the Eetu Luostarinen-Anton Lundell-Sam Reinhart line has been the best of the playoffs, in terms of both goals and expected goals allowed.
How big is the Panthers’ edge on special teams?
After it started 0 of 9 against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins, Florida’s power play has been one of the best of the playoffs, even scoring four times against Carolina’s league-best penalty kill in the East finals.
The Panthers’ power-play percentage is up to 27.9 and it would be at 35.3% without the 0-for-9 start. The Hurricanes went into the ECF with a 90% penalty kill and Florida still went 4 for 14 with three game-winning goals.
Special teams are the Golden Knights’ clearest weakness. Vegas has the third worst penalty kill of the playoffs at 63.0% and a below-average power play at 18.5%.
The Panthers’ success doesn’t seem to just be a matter of a small sample size, either: Their power play took off once they went back to playing four forwards, dropping star defenseman Aaron Ekblad to the No. 2 unit, and quicker decision making is getting Tkachuk plenty of opportunities around the net.
Four of Tkachuk’s nine postseason goals and nine of his 21 points have come on the power play.
Can the Panthers match the Golden Knights’ depth?
The Golden Knights’ greatest strength is their depth. All four of the forward lines they used at the end of the Western Conference finals have a positive goal differential — their fourth line of Vegas forwards Nicholas Carrier, Nicolas Carrier and William Roy actually has the team’s best expected goal share — and has helped produce at least four goals in this postseason.
Florida, meanwhile, stays away from its fourth line a bit more and the trio of forwards Ryan Lomberg, Eric Staal and Colin White has accounted for just one goal in its 29 minutes on the ice in this postseason.
The Golden Knights need bigger offensive contributions from their third and fourth lines to win, so the Panthers can steal an edge if their fourth line can score a goal or two and they have the potential to. Staal is a six-time All-Star and Lomberg had three high-danger chances in the NHL conference finals after he missed all of Round 2 with a hand injury.
Can Tkachuk possibly keep doing this?
Tkachuk sits right behind Bobrovsky on the list of Smythe Trophy favorites because of his four game-winning goals, including three in the conference finals.
In hockey, it might seem to be an unsustainable pace for one player to be so heavily involved in virtually every big moment, but does it have to be?
The 25-year-old American is uniquely suited to keep coming through in clutch moments because of how many close games Florida is playing, and his role in several of the Panthers’ most important units.
On Florida’s scorching power play, Tkachuk plays around the net as the go-to finisher. On the Panthers’ second line, he’s the driver of the offense and the line — with fellow forwards Nick Cousins and Sam Bennett — has produced 7.5 expected goals in the playoffs.
In all, no forward in the Final has been on the ice for more goals, expected goals, shots and scoring chances than Tkachuk. He’s finished at an above-average rate by shooting 18.8 percent, but he’s also putting himself in position to get good chances.