When the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs began, few could have predicted a finals match between Vegas and Florida. Yet here we are with the National Hockey League (NHL)’s second-ever all-“Sun Belt” final.
A year removed from missing the playoffs entirely for the first time in its brief existence, the Golden Knights came roaring back for the 2022-23 season, claiming the top spot in the Western Conference going into the playoffs. While Vegas’ goaltending has been a game of musical chairs, it gained stability in acquired star Jack Eichel and new coach Bruce Cassidy. Thanks to the return of Adin Hill, the Golden Knights rolled to three straight convincing series victories.
A year removed from finishing with the best record in the NHL, Florida barely squeaked into the playoffs, needing a late-season miracle win by the lowly Chicago Blackhawks over the Pittsburgh Penguins to sneak through. Conn Smythe Trophy favorite Sergei Bobrovsky was struggling late in the regular season, so the Panthers needed Alex Lyon to carry the squad into the East’s final spot. While there, Florida was expected to get waxed by the record-setting Boston Bruins in the first round. However, Bobrovsky and off-season acquisition Matthew Tkachuk orchestrated a remarkable series turnaround, resulting in momentum that the Panthers rode all the way to the finals, taking out three East heavyweights (the Bruins, Toronto, and Carolina) in the process.
Here’s my prediction for the 2023 Stanley Cup Final:
Florida Panthers vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Road to the Finals
Florida defeated Boston in seven games, Toronto in five games, and Carolina in four.
Vegas defeated Winnipeg in five games, Edmonton in six games, and Dallas in six.
Florida’s berth in the Stanley Cup finals has to be one of the most surprising in NHL history. Not only did the Panthers barely get into the playoffs, but Florida trailed three games to one in its opening round series against Boston. However, a goalie switch by coach Paul Maurice to Sergei Bobrovsky (11-2-0, 2.21 GAA, .935 save percentage), followed by a couple of overtime goals, sent the Panthers on their way. Since Game 4 against Boston, Florida has only lost one game, dismantling Toronto and Carolina in the process.
While Florida has been on a magical run, most of its wins have been in tight games. The Panthers have been getting timely goals from Tkachuk (team-leading nine goals and 21 points), who has three overtime winners in the playoffs. In addition, Tkachuk scored the series winner against the Hurricanes in the final five seconds of Game 4. Sam Reinhart and Carter Verhaeghe have been providing plenty of offense, while setup man Aleksander Barkov has found his groove.
While Bobrovsky and Tkachuk are Florida’s top candidates for playoff MVP, a sleeper choice would be Brandon Montour, who played a huge role in the upset of the Bruins. The gifted two-way defenseman is logging nearly 28 minutes of ice time per game, and has been a force on the blue line. Montour, Gustav Forsling, Aaron Ekblad, and Marc Staal have been a tremendous core four for the Panthers.
While Vegas hasn’t been as dominant during its run to the Finals, the Golden Knights took out two of the Western Conference’s best teams, Dallas and Edmonton, en route. Vegas features a balanced scoring attack paced by Eichel (team-leading 18 points), who is finally emerging as a game-breaker in the NHL. However, Vegas’ best stories have been Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, whom the Golden Knights picked up as part of an infamous Expansion Draft transaction. Marchessault (17 points) had a hat trick in the clincher against the Oilers, while Smith continues to contribute from a bottom-six role. Columbus castoff William Karlsson leads all Vegas players with 10 goals, while captain Mark Stone continues to provide offense while battling a back injury.
It has taken a while, but Vegas has finally settled on Hill (7-3-0, 2.07, .937) as its goalie of choice for the playoffs. Since coming in against Edmonton due to an injury to Laurent Brossoit, Hill has provided consistently solid goaltending, making things easy for the Golden Knights’ defense. Quietly, Vegas’ blue line has emerged as one of the best in the NHL, led by Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore. They are joined by Alec Martinez, Zach Whitecloud, Brayden McNabb, and Nicholas Hauge — an elite top six.
Florida is red-hot and Bobrovsky is well-rested, which means the Panthers seem primed to capture the franchise’s first title. Meanwhile, Vegas is battle-tested, and eager to capture an elusive title they narrowly missed out on in 2018. In past years, hot goaltenders like Anton Khudobin and Carey Price have proved to be the Golden Knights’ downfall in the playoffs, which makes facing Bobrovsky a scary proposition. Yet Vegas has a big advantage with its overall roster depth, especially on its third and fourth lines.
I expect Vegas and Florida to be an epic final, but I like the Golden Knights to prevail in six games.