By Wayne Redshaw
For the fourth consecutive year the State of Florida will have a team competing in the Stanley Cup finals.
The past three years the Tampa Bay Lightning have gone to the finals winning in 2020 and 2021 and then losing to the Colorado Avalanche in six games last year.
Now, the Florida Panthers are the latest Sunshine State NHL club to qualify for the finals. They barely qualified for the post-season making it on the final day of the regular season thanks to some outside help from the lowly Chicago Black Hawks who knocked off Pittsburgh In their season finale on the road thus eliminating the Penguins from the playoff picture.\
The Panthers have definitely taken advantage of the situation and played a giant-killer’s role in the process, knocking off top-ranked Boston Bruins in seven games in the first round. Then they sent the Toronto Maple Leafs packing in the second round allowing them to book times at their favourite golf courses after five games. And the Panthers were not done. They dispatched the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals in four straight to reach the finals.
So what is the secret that Florida-based teams have been so successful to reach the finals four years in a row? Is there something extra in the water they drink that makes them excel in the playoffs? Or is it sunshine (solar power) that the players take in during the regular season that provides them with extra energy come playoff time?
Maybe both the water and the sunshine are some ingredients that have propelled the two clubs all the way to the finals. However, there are other factors. And the big one or the key one in my opinion is goaltending.
First, Andre Vasilevskiy was the x-factor for the Lightning to make it to the finals three years in a row. Granted, the Lightning had some top guns, especially up front but at the back end Vasilevskiy was there to foil the enemy. He made those clutch saves when he was called upon.
The same can be said about Sergei Bobrovsky. Other than the outstanding play of Matthew Tkachuk, Bobrovsky has been the backbone of the Panthers in the playoffs so far.
Surprisingly, Bobrovsky didn’t start the first three games of the first round against the Bruins. Instead, it was Alex Lyon. But since Bobrovsky took over the controls he has kept the Panthers in contention.
Now we head into the finals with the Panthers opening the Cup Finals on the road against Vegas Golden Knights. For both teams, it will be their second appearance in the finals. The last time Florida was in the finals was 1996 when they were swept by Colorado in four games while the Knights lost to Washington Capitals in five games during the 2018 final.
Thus, this will be a first-time ever no matter who wins. This puts me on the hot seat as in the previous three rounds I predicted the Panthers and Knights to lose in all three rounds. No wonder my prediction record this year is a dismal 6-8 heading into the finals. That means I can’t break even no matter who I pick.
So here we go. I am picking the Knights to win but it will be a close and entertaining series, one that should go six games.
So why the Golden Knights? My heart tells me to go with the underdogs, the Panthers as they have been the underdogs for all the previous series but have delivered. But my hockey sense tells me Vegas is the better team overall with four balanced forward lines led by the likes of Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault and Chandler Stephenson. They also have good depth, especially on the blueline with Alex Pietrangelo, Alec Martinez and Brayden McNabb.
If there’s one department that the Panthers have the edge, it’s between the pipes with Bobrovsky. Now I’m not saying the Knights’ Adin Hill hasn’t played well. He has. But Bobrovsky is the No. 1 reason the Panthers have gone this far. He’s made the key saves when called upon. He will have to continue his red-hot performance to give Florida a chance of winning it all.
And the Panthers will be heard from and make it an entertaining series. Tkachuk has enjoyed a successful playoff run so far with nine goals and 12 assists. He has a good supporting cast in Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhardt, Anthony Duclair, Aleksander Barkov, Carter Verhaeghe and defencemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour.
Special teams could play an important role. So the Panthers’ Radko Gudas must stop taking some dumb penalties like he has in the previous rounds or the Panthers will pay for it. Vegas has a potent power-play.
Prediction: Golden Knights in six.
(Wayne Redshaw covered the NHL for over 40 seasons and was named a Life Member of the Professional Hockey Writer’s Association in 1987.)