It’s a matchup that would have been unthinkable for most of the NHL’s history.
The Western Conference champion Golden Knights and the Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers will meet for the right to hoist the Stanley Cup. Game 1 will be at 5 p.m. Saturday at T-Mobile Arena.
The Knights’ path was conventional after posting the best regular-season record in the West and going 12-5 through three playoff rounds.
The Panthers’ was anything but.
Florida is the third team in the NHL’s expansion era (since 1967-68) to reach the final as the lowest overall seed. The Panthers spent only 28 percent of the regular season in a playoff spot despite winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2022. Once they were in, however, they were unstoppable.
Florida has taken down three of the NHL’s top five teams in terms of regular-season record to reach its second final and first since losing to Colorado in 1996. The Panthers defeated the top-ranked Boston Bruins in overtime in Game 7 in the first round, knocked out the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games and swept the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.
Toronto was tied for the fourth-most points in the league with the Knights. Carolina had the second-most.
“It’s just so fun being at the rink right now,” Panthers right wing Matthew Tkachuk said last week. “We got a few weeks left of this. We talked about it in the room, it’s going to be the best few weeks of our lives hopefully.”
The reasons for the Panthers’ run include some heroic performances.
General manager Bill Zito pulled off the blockbuster trade of the summer when he acquired Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames for left wing Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar.
Tkachuk has been fantastic. The 25-year-old finished tied for the seventh-most points in the NHL with 109 and became a finalist for the Hart Trophy for the first time.
He’s been just as incredible in the playoffs. His 21 postseason points are the second-most in the league. His last one came on his conference-clinching goal with five seconds remaining in Game 4 against Carolina.
Neck and neck with Tkachuk in terms of the Panthers’ Conn Smythe Trophy favorites is goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
The two-time Vezina Trophy winner signed a seven-year, $70 million contract with Florida in July 2019. It gave him the second-highest cap hit in NHL history for a goaltender, and it looked for a long time as if he would never live up to it. Bobrovsky’s save percentage is .905 through four years with the Panthers. It was .921 during his previous seven-year stint in Columbus.
But for whatever reason, Bobrovsky has turned back the clock in the playoffs. He began on the bench, as 30-year-old Alex Lyon was given the net to start the Bruins’ series. Bobrovsky entered in Game 3 and never looked back. He helped the Panthers overcome a 3-1 deficit against Boston, then almost single-handedly ended Toronto’s and Carolina’s seasons.
Bobrovsky is 8-1 with a .954 save percentage and 1.51 goals-against average in the past two rounds. He posted one shutout and allowed three goals only once.
“I’m enjoying this moment,” Bobrovsky said. “We went through lots of things, and I’m really (appreciating) this opportunity.”
Rounding out Florida’s core are captain Aleksander Barkov, left wing Carter Verhaeghe and right wing Sam Reinhart, along with defensemen Brandon Montour, Gustav Forsling and Aaron Ekblad.
It’s a group that has developed an aggressive forecheck under first-year coach Paul Maurice, who is in the final for the second time in his 25 years behind an NHL bench. It’s a style that has helped the Panthers eliminate three teams they were underdogs against.
If they pull off one more upset, they will go down in hockey history.
“We’re not done, and we’re not finished,” center Anton Lundell said. “We’ve got more energy, and we can’t wait for the final to start.”