It's here, folks. The Stanley Cup Final has been set for a few days now, and it's an interesting one. For the first time in five years, we will be guaranteed a first-time champion, as neither team has hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup. The last Final to guarantee such a historic feat was 2018, which featured the Vegas Golden Knights facing the Washington Capitals that year. 2019 was the last time that we saw a team win their first-ever Cup, as the St. Louis Blues won ended their tenure-long drought.
I do love the Stanley Cup Final, because it's the end of the most grueling journey in all of sports. This is my second year writing a preview on Vocal, but this will be my third time that I will be giving a game by game recap of the Stanley Cup Final. Last year was an absolute delight for me, watching the Colorado Avalanche win a six-game battle over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and capturing the Stanley Cup for the first time in 21 years. That moment still plays in my memory on a loop, even close to a year later. This year, we have two different contenders, and they are as follows:
Who had this Florida Panthers reaching the Stanley Cup Final on their bingo card? If you say you did, you're lying! The funny thing about this: this team shouldn't even have reached the playoffs! The Panthers should have been eliminated three different times, with the first one coming late in the regular season. If the Pittsburgh Penguins had actually won their games against two of the worst teams in the league, we wouldn't be seeing Florida. Instead, they lost both games, with the loss to the lowly Chicago Blackhawks putting the Panthers in. In the opening round, the Panthers fell behind 3-1 and were tied late in Game Five. Brad Marchand had a breakaway chance in the final seconds. If he scores, it's over. But he didn't. Game goes to OT, Matthew Tkachuk wins it.
Series needs Game Seven, Bruins lead 3-2 late. They hold on, we don't see Florida. What happens? Panthers tie it with 59.3 left. OT is needed. Carter Verhaeghe wins it. Now you would think that after an upset like this, they just appreciate it and do whatever. But that's the moment they become worldbeaters. Needed only five games to oust the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Final, and swept the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final. The Florida Panthers have won 11 of 12 since falling behind 3-1 against Boston, and this includes winning six overtime games, with five of them being on the road--including the quadruple overtime Game 1 against Carolina.
The Florida Panthers are in the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in franchise history, and the first time since 1996. They have Matthew Tkachuk and Sergei Bobrovsky to thank for this. It's actually been a team effort overall, but those two have been the leaders. I said last offseason that the Panthers fleeced the Calgary Flames in that trade, and boy did they! Tkachuk has 21 points entering the Final, nine of them being goals. Of the nine goals, four are game winners--three overtime goals and the one in the final seconds of Game Four that sent Florida to the Final. As for the man known as "Playoff Bob": 11-2, 2.21 GAA, .935 GAA, and a shutout (Game Three vs Carolina). Florida's other three OT goals were scored by the aforementioned Verhaeghe, Sam Reinhart, and Nick Cousins, and the Panthers enter the Final with five players at 10+ points each. Again, a much better team effort than we saw from them in the regular season.
Vegas Golden Knights
The best revenge really is living well, and the Vegas Golden Knights are proving it this year. I've referred to this run as a "revenge tour" for the Golden Knights. Last year was a nightmare; for the first time in their brief franchise history, Vegas actually missed the playoffs. Like a lot of fans, I celebrated and laughed, because the team and the fanbase had been pounding their chests a lot ever since that first year. When they fail, it's followed by a neverending string of excuses and scapegoating, and it led to the ultimate failure of actually missing the playoffs last year.
Clearly, they took missing the playoffs personally, and decided to use this season as a platform to tear up the league, finishing as the #1 team in the Western Conference. In a rematch of the 2018 Western Conference Final, the Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets in the opening round, and ousted the sputtering Edmonton Oilers in six game Pacific Final. The Western Conference Final was interesting; Vegas won the first three games, but the Dallas Stars took the next two, leading us to believe that a reverse sweep could be on the horizon. The Knights put an end to that with a 6-0 win in Game Six.
The Knights have six players with 10+ points each, but the leader on this squad is none Jack Eichel, who is enjoying his very first postseason. Amazing, isn't it? For the first time in his career, Jack Eichel is in the playoffs, and he's really making the most of it. 6 goals, 12 assists, 18 points in 17 games. While Eichel's leading in helpers and points, it's William Karlsson leading in goals with 10. Jonathan Marchessault, one of the few players left from the first year, is right behind Eichel in points with 17 (9 G/8 A), and for Marchessault, it's full circle for him. After all, he was taken from the Florida Panthers in the expansion draft. As for goaltending, Laurent Brossoit started off in net, but we've seen Adin Hill takeover and completely dominate, going 7-3 with a GAA barely over 2.00, and a pair of shutouts, one of them coming in Game Six vs Dallas.
This year's Stanley Cup Final will air on the Turner networks here in the United States, with TNT, TBS, and TruTV simulcasting the games, while Sportsnet has the Final in Canada. Oh, and regarding the whole conference trophy jinx (or lack thereof), the Panthers touched the Wales Trophy (and skated around with it), but the Golden Knights didn't touch the Campbell Bowl. Out of 32 teams in the NHL, 20 of them have won the Stanley Cup at least once. Either the Golden Knights or the Panthers will become the 21st when this is all over, and it will be an absolutely wonderful celebration!