June 1 (Reuters) – The Florida Panthers hope to put the finishing touches on their fairytale run when they take on the Vegas Golden Knights in an intriguing matchup in the Stanley Cup Final that begins on Saturday.
Each game in the best-of-seven series to determine the champions of the 2022-23 National Hockey League season will be played in the Sun Belt for the first time and will feature teams that couldn’t have started the playoffs further apart.
Vegas entered the postseason as the top seed in the Western Conference, while Florida snuck into the playoffs as the final wild card in the Eastern Conference and wasn’t even expected to advance past the first round, let alone reach the final.
The Panthers, who lost their only other Stanley Cup Final appearance when they suffered a four-game sweep at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche in 1996, notably beat three of the top four regular-season teams to reach the round. of championship.
“It’s so much fun to be on the court right now,” said Florida forward Matthew Tkachuk, who leads the Panthers with 21 points in the playoffs, including four game-winners.
“We’ve got a few weeks left of this. We talked about it in the room, hopefully it’s going to be the best weeks of our lives. It’s something we’re all really excited about.”
Florida had to win three straight first-round elimination games to beat the Boston Bruins, who were coming off the best regular season in NHL history, before defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games and sweeping the Carolinas. Hurricanes.
Bringing an emotional edge and the ability to step up when it matters most, Tkachuk scored twice in overtime on the road against Carolina before sending Florida to the Stanley Cup Final when he scored the game-winner. of the series with 4.9 seconds remaining.
The Panthers have also enjoyed stellar goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky, who has improved in every round since taking over the starting reins in Game Four against Boston.
The 34-year-old Russian, who won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender in 2013 and 2017, has also emerged as a frontrunner to be named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoffs’ most valuable player if Florida wins. the Stanley Cup. .
Needing just five games to get past the Winnipeg Jets in the first round, Vegas took out the Edmonton Oilers in six games and ousted the Dallas Stars in six to reach its second Stanley Cup Final in just its sixth year of existence.
“We had one goal at the beginning of the season: get better every day and have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup, and now we have that chance,” Las Vegas captain Mark Stone said.
The Golden Knights are led by talented forward Jack Eichel, who was the second overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, while goaltender Adin Hill has been rock-solid behind a strong defense since taking over. crease in the middle of the second round.
By the time the puck drops on Saturday, the Panthers will have had 10 days of rest between games, and while concerns about their ability to come out well after such a long layoff are legitimate, the team isn’t concerned.
“I mean, it’s Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, you’re going to have some nerves and you’re going to have some excitement,” Panthers defenseman Marc Staal said.
“We’ll prepare the right way (and) our energy level will be right. Maybe a little rusty in certain ways, but we’ll be ready to play.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond
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