The 2023 Stanley Cup Final kicks off on Saturday night and – at least on paper – this year’s edition is shaping up to be a compelling matchup.
The Florida Panthers, a team that has been among the better squads in the National Hockey League for the last few years, are winners of the Prince of Wales Trophy for the second time in their history and are in the Finals for the first time since being swept by the Colorado Avalanche in their third year of existence in 1995-96. Thanks to series wins over the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes, Florida is also attempting to win the first championship in franchise history and are a year removed from winning the President’s Trophy as the league’s best regular season team.
Meanwhile the Clarence Campbell Bowl-winning Vegas Golden Knights are in the Final for the second time in their six-year run as an NHL franchise (the first came in their inaugural season, falling to the Washington Capitals in five games). Ending the 2022-23 regular season with the best record in the Western Conference, Vegas is also aiming to take home the Cup for the first time. They got here by defeating the Winnipeg Jets in five games and knocking out the Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars in six, and appeared in the Western Conference Final for the fourth time in six years.
It doesn’t get much better than this. Here’s the scoop on each team going into Game One on Saturday night:
Florida Panthers (42-32-8, 92 points)
Florida is playoff-bound for the fourth straight year (the first time in franchise history that’s happened), and the appointment of the well-traveled Paul Maurice to replace the tandem of Andrew Brunette and future Hall of Famer Joel Quenneville has given the Panthers some much-needed guidance behind the bench. Maurice inherited a team bolstered at forward by Selke Trophy-winner Alex Barkov and gritty Matthew Tkachuk, supplemented by quality depth in Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe, Anton Lundell and Sam Bennett. Defensively the Panthers are held down by Aaron Ekblad, Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour. In goal the aging Sergei Bobrovsky has turned back the clock and been outstanding in net this postseason with a 2.21 goals-against-average, a .935 save percentage and one shutout. If Florida wins he’ll be the proverbial favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff’s MVP.
Vegas Golden Knights (51-22-9, 111 points)
The Golden Knights are back in the playoffs after a one-year absence and are again one of the better outfits in the Western Conference. Led by William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, the Golden Knights have augmented their core group with experienced pros like Mark Stone, Alex Pietrangelo, Jack Eichel, Ivan Barbashev, Shea Theodore and Chandler Stephenson and are a team that relies on speed and a strong forechecking game. Coach Bruce Cassidy has kept this team on course while former King Jonathan Quick, Laurent Brossoit, Logan Thompson and Adin Hill all took turns trying to fill the hole left by Robin Lehner – who has missed all of 2022-23 due to a hip injury. Hill so far has taken the reigns and performed surprisingly well thus far with a .937 save percentage, a 2.07 goals-against-average and two shutouts.
- This Final is the first since 2018 (between Vegas and the Washington Capitals) and the seventh in 90 years in which neither team has won a Stanley Cup yet.
- According to NHL Stats, the Panthers were in a playoff spot for just 28 percent of the regular season (54 out of 190 days). Since expansion began in 1967, they are the only team to reach the Final after being in a playoff spot for less than 30 percent of the season – the prior low was the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues, who won the Stanley Cup after being in a playoff spot for only 32 percent of the year.
- Matthew Tkachuk’s game-winning power play goal with five seconds to go in regulation is tied for the latest series-clinching goal ever with Toronto’s Nick Metz in Game Six of the 1942 Stanley Cup Final.
- According to Prashanth Iyer of the Expected By Whom podcast, since the NHL has gone to a 16-team playoff format in 1979-80 Bobrovsky has the third-highest save percentage in a conference final (minimum four games played) with a mark of .971 against Carolina. Only Jean-Sebastien Giguere (.992 against the Minnesota Wild in 2003) and Tuukka Rask (.985 versus the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013) have higher numbers.
- According to Arda Ocal of ESPN, should Bobrovsky and Hill start Game One it will be just the second time both teams had a different starting goalie for Game One of the opening round and the Cup Final (Florida and Vegas went with Alex Lyon and Brossoit, respectively). The last time that happened was in 1969, when the Blues and Montreal Canadiens met and originally started Glenn Hall and Gump Worsley earlier in the playoffs before going with Jacques Plante and Rogie Vachon later on.
- This year’s Final will be the first to not be telecast on American broadcast television since 1994 (New York Rangers vs. Vancouver Canucks was on ESPN). TNT will have exclusive rights to the Final in the United States.
- It will be the seventh time in which two coaches in their first season with a team will square off in the Final.
- On that note, Cassidy is attempting to be the sixth coach to win a Cup in his first year with a team after they missed the postseason the year prior.
- Including the San Jose Sharks and Golden State Warriors in 2016, this will be the 10th time that a city or region has had a Stanley Cup Finalist and an NBA finalist in the same year. It’s happened just three times this century (the third was the New Jersey Devils and Nets in 2003).
- According to Ocal, teams from the state of Florida have gotten to the Final as many times as Canadian teams have since 1993 (seven).
- Eight ex-Buffalo Sabres are on the two teams’ rosters in this Final (Eichel, Brayden McNabb and William Carrier for Vegas, Reinhart, Montour, Eric Staal, Zac Dalpe and Casey Fitzgerald for Florida).
- 2023 will be the first Final in which both teams were led in scoring by an American-born player in the regular season (Tkachuk for Florida, Eichel for Vegas).
- This marks the first time ever that an eighth seeded team from the NHL and NBA have each reached the Final in their respective sport in the same year.
- Since expansion began in 1967 there have been three teams to advance to the Final after beginning the playoffs as the league’s lowest seed – the 2016-17 Nashville Predators, the 2020-21 Montreal Canadiens and now the 2022-23 Florida Panthers.
- This will be Paul Maurice’s second trip to the Final – his last came in 2002 with Carolina against the Detroit Red Wings. Conversely, it’s also Cassidy’s second trip to the big dance but his prior experience came four years ago with Boston versus the Blues.
- 2023 will be the 42nd time in the last 43 seasons in which future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr or one of his teammates will play in the Final (Barkov and Ekblad on Florida and Marchessault and Smith on Vegas were all teammates of Jagr’s with the Panthers in 2016-17).
Panthers in six. While Hill has performed well in goal for the Golden Knights, we’re not so sure that the career backup’s strong run will continue for Vegas. Neither team has been particularly good on the penalty kill and both power plays have been solid – although Florida’s is a bit better. That, and the slight advantage in goal, will lead to the Panthers winning their first Cup (and perhaps celebratory rats raining down on their players on home ice instead of confetti).