NHL: Golden Knights, Panthers clash in pursuit of first Stanley Cup title

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During a gathering of about 5,000 fans to reveal his new team’s nickname and logo outside T-Mobile Arena in November of 2016, Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley made a rather bold prediction.

When asked by the emcee how long it would take his expansion franchise to lift the Stanley Cup, Foley replied, “I did say seven years, but it should be six years now. Six years.”

Vegas, which made a storybook run to the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural season in 2018 before losing in five games to the Washington Capitals, has one last chance to make Foley look like a prophet.

The Golden Knights face this year’s Cinderella team of the playoffs, the Eastern Conference winning Florida Panthers, in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final beginning Saturday night in Las Vegas.

Vegas, which missed making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history a year ago, rebounded to post a Western Conference-best 111 points while winning the Pacific Division title. The Golden Knights then disposed of the Winnipeg Jets in five games in Round 1, took down Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers in six games in Round 2 and defeated the Dallas Stars in six games in the Western Conference finals.

Florida, which finished tied for just 17th overall in the NHL in points with 92, has won 11 of its last 12 games, including seven in a row by one goal, behind the play of Conn Smythe Trophy frontrunners Matthew Tkachuk (21 points, nine goals, four game-winners) and Sergei Bobrovsky (11-2, .935 save percentage).

The Panthers — back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 when they were swept in four games by the Joe Sakic-led Colorado Avalanche — rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to stun the record-setting and top-seeded Boston Bruins in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Florida followed that up with a 4-1 series win over Toronto in Round 2 and swept the Carolina Hurricanes in four games in the Eastern final.

Florida will have had nine days off since their series-clinching 4-3 win over Carolina on May 24 while Vegas has had just a four-day break since their 6-0 clincher at Dallas on Monday. Could the long break cause the Panthers to lose their momentum and be a little rusty heading into Game 1?

“None of the things that you would have normally wanted to have happen has happened to us and they all turned out good, so be careful what you wish for,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said. “So we’ve just decided not to wish for anything, just take what it is. … It’s a big block of time off and how do you stay sharp, but I would take the rest over worrying about how sharp we’re going to be in Game 1.”

Vegas has relied on a strong defense led by past Stanley Cup winners Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis) and Alec Martinez (two with Los Angeles). It also has a solid group of veteran forwards that includes William Karlsson (team-high 10 goals), ex-Panther Jonathan Marchessault (nine goals in the last 10 games) and Jack Eichel (18 points, six goals).

Eichel, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2015 NHL Draft, is taking part in the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. He brings a seven-game goal drought into the Final but has impressed with his all-around play.

“It’s a great opportunity for our group,” Eichel said. “Everybody wants a chance to play in a Stanley Cup Final and to compete for the ultimate goal.”

The Golden Knights, who used five different goaltenders because of injuries during the season, have also gotten surprisingly good play from Adin Hill in net. Hill, who took over for injured Laurent Brossoit in Game 3 of the second round against Edmonton, is 7-3 with a .937 save percentage and two shutouts.

“He’s been great,” Marchessault said. “He’s given us a chance to win every night. At (this) time of the year, if you don’t have a good goalie, I don’t think you go through.”

Marchessault was asked about Foley’s prediction of winning a Stanley Cup in six years.

“Bill’s a smart man, right?” Marchessault said with a smile. “He’s done a lot of good things in his life. We’ll see how it turns out.”

–Field Level Media

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