The Stanley Cup final no one asked for might still be pretty good
It's no Oilers-Leafs, but there's a lot to like in Vegas vs. Florida
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It wasn't supposed to end like this.
Less than a month ago, everything was falling into place for an all-Canadian Stanley Cup final. With defending champion Colorado and title favourite Boston both suffering shocking first-round upsets, Edmonton and Toronto were suddenly the betting favourites to win their conferences.
Instead, the Florida Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights punctured the all-Canadian dream by bouncing Toronto and Edmonton in the second round, and now they're meeting in something like the opposite of a Leafs-Oilers final. Rather than those blue-blood franchises playing for Lord Stanley's Cup, we get an all-Sun Belt matchup featuring a No. 8 seed from the hockey-indifferent Miami metro area vs. the NHL embodiment of nouveau riche, right down to the gaudy gold uniforms.
Having said that, Florida and Vegas are worthy finalists, and this is a compelling matchup that will result in one of them hoisting the Cup for the first time in franchise history. Canadian hockey snobbery aside, that's pretty nice.
Here's a look at both teams ahead of Game 1 of the final Saturday night on the Las Vegas strip.
Unlike their Canadian counterparts, Golden Knights fans do not know suffering. Their team has been in existence for just six seasons, and this is already its second trip to the Cup final. Vegas made one of the most improbable playoff runs in sports history in 2018 when it reached the championship series as a first-year expansion franchise before losing to Alex Ovechkin's Capitals.
While the remaining Misfits are a good story, this Vegas team is better than that plucky 2018 squad because the front office is not afraid to gamble on star players. Talented centre Jack Eichel (team-high 18 points in the playoffs) needed back surgery when the Knights traded for him in November 2021 after a bitter falling out with Buffalo. Elite two-way winger Mark Stone (15 points) wanted a big new contract when Vegas plucked him from Ottawa at the 2019 trade deadline. Go-to defenceman Alex Pietrangelo commanded a massive seven-year, $61.6 million US free-agent deal in 2020 when he left St. Louis.
After missing the playoffs for the first time in the (brief) history of the franchise last year, this newer, shinier version of the Golden Knights posted the best record in the Western Conference before dispatching Winnipeg in five games and Edmonton and Dallas in six. The wagering odds for the final imply Vegas has about a 53 per cent chance of winning the Cup and seeing those big bets pay off.
A 47 per cent chance of winning the Cup? That's all gravy for the Panthers. Before the playoffs, betting markets gave the team with the worst record among the 16 qualifiers a less than 1-in-30 shot of hoisting the trophy and only about a 1-in-4 hope of even advancing past the first round.
Including their 6-0 record in overtime, the Panthers are 9-1 in one-goal games in the playoffs. That's reminiscent of the last Canadian team to win the Cup, the 1993 Montreal Canadiens, who won 10 straight OT games.
The Conn Smythe Trophy winner in '93 was Patrick Roy, and Florida has its own red-hot goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky. The two-time Vezina winner lost his starting job late in the season, but he got in back during the Boston series before stonewalling Toronto and then posting a sparkling 1.12 goals-against average and .966 save percentage vs. Carolina.
And what can you say about Matthew Tkachuk that jilted Flames fans haven't already? In his first playoffs since forcing a trade from Calgary, the skilled and scrappy forward has scored three OT winners and racked up 21 points (second-most in the league) in 16 games.
Florida is just the third team in NHL history to eliminate three of the top four clubs in the overall standings. Vegas finished fifth. So, in a way, a Stanley Cup victory would be the least surprising part of this incredible Panthers run.