By STEPHEN WHYNO AP Hockey Writer
LAS VEGAS — Few expected the Florida Panthers to be playing for the Stanley Cup. Not with two weeks left in the regular season and certainly not when they trailed the NHL-best Boston Bruins three games to one in the first round.
The Vegas Golden Knights expected to be playing for the Stanley Cup. It was ownership’s plan from Day One of the franchise, to win it within six years, and a trip to the Final in its inaugural season only shifted the hockey team in the desert into perennial contender mode.
Taking opposite roads to this point, Florida and Vegas now collide in the Cup Final with one team set to win the title for the first time. The Panthers are the upstarts out of the Eastern Conference and the last team to make the playoffs, and the Golden Knights are the powerhouse champions of the West.
Only one can finish this story on a winning note.
“We were the underdogs every series we’ve played – it doesn’t really matter what anyone thinks,” Florida forward Carter Verhaeghe said Friday ahead of Game 1 on Saturday night. “We think we have a really good team. It doesn’t really matter what the outside distractions say. We’re probably not favorites again. We just come to the rink, play hockey and try to win hockey games.”
The Golden Knights have won a lot of hockey games in recent years. And Verhaeghe is right: Vegas is favored to win the series on FanDuel Sportsbook, probably because the top seed in the West has done everything to deserve that status.
It has not come by surprise, and it certainly is not an accident. It was unexpected in 2017-18 when the Golden Knights went from expansion darlings to the Final before losing to Washington, but every step made by management since – two coaching changes, several bold trades and a few key free agent signings – was done with the express purpose of getting the Stanley Cup to Las Vegas.
“We did envision this,” General Manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “We have a pretty clear vision of what we think a championship team, a contending team, needs to look like. We’ve worked hard to acquire that, to build that.”
Building a championship team often revolves around acquiring a franchise goaltender who can stop the puck when it matters most. The Golden Knights got to the final five years ago with Marc-Andre Fleury, but their story in net since then has been anything but conventional.
Just within the past year, they’ve had five different goalies start and win. Injuries along the way have left the job to Adin Hill, who since taking over in the middle of the second round has stopped 312 of 333 shots to get Vegas to the Final.
“It’s sort of been that next-man-up mentality, and whoever is in between the pipes that night I think the entire group feels very confident with,” said first-line center Jack Eichel, who is a playoff MVP favorite in his first career playoff appearance. “It just gives the group that much more confidence every night when your goalie’s playing that well.”
Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky surely is. And that’s actually an understatement.
The two-time Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s top goaltender, Bobrovsky has won 11 of his past 12 games and not allowed a goal in nearly 100 minutes of overtime this postseason.
“He’s always been doing his thing,” Panthers defenseman Josh Mahura said. “We see the work he puts in every day. We have the utmost confidence in him every time he steps in the net. He’s been unbelievable and obviously a big part of the reason why we’re here.”
Who wins the series will be determined from the net out, not just by Hill and Bobrovsky but the players in front of them who have tried to make their jobs easier. Vegas and Florida each have allowed under three goals per game so far in the playoffs, combining to block 605 shots along the way.
Shot-blocking is just one part of the defensive techniques and structure that helped Vegas get past Winnipeg, Edmonton and Dallas in the West and eighth-seeded Florida knock off Boston, Toronto and Carolina in the East.
The Panthers were overlooked along their path, and while the Golden Knights insist they’re not underestimating their opponent, they also don’t lack any confidence about being able to come away with the Cup.
“Florida, obviously they’re hot right now: They’ve knocked off three of the top four teams in the league to get there,” Hill said. “(But) I don’t think if we play our best any team in this league can beat us.”
FLORIDA AT VEGAS
What: Stanley Cup Final, Game 1
When: Saturday, 5 p.m.
Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas