The Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Dallas Stars 6-0 in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, where they will face the Florida Panthers.
Vegas will be making its second appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in just the sixth season of the franchise’s existence. The team previously made a remarkable run to the Stanley Cup in 2018 – its inaugural season – but lost to the Washington Capitals.
Florida has been part of the NHL for nearly 30 years, but is making just its second trip to the Stanley Cup Final after winning the Eastern Conference Final over the Carolina Hurricanes. The Panthers’ lone previous shot at the championship came in the 1995/96 season, when the team came up short against the Colorado Avalanche.
The No. 8 seeded Panthers beat the Hurricanes 4-3 last week to become the first team in NHL history to enter the postseason as the lowest-seeded club and sweep a best-of-seven series to book a spot in the final.
Like their teams, the Stanley Cup Final will also offer the coaches of both squads – Florida’s Paul Maurice and Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy – the opportunity to win their first title in their second attempt.
Maurice coached the Hurricanes to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final before eventually losing to the Detroit Red Wings while Cassidy got the Boston Bruins to finale in 2019, but lost in seven games against the St. Louis Blues.
Vegas also have certain members of their team who have personal motivation to overcome the Panthers.
Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith previously took to the ice for Florida before being let go after being deemed unwanted. Since then, Marchessault has become Vegas’ all-time leader in goals, assists, points and games played while Smith is second in goals, fourth in assists, third in points and fourth in games played.
Marchessault and Smith lead the Golden Knights in all-time playoff scoring.
“They’re reminding me a lot of the team we had the first year: against all odds,” Marchessault said of the Panthers after Monday’s victory.
“They worked hard to be there. It’s all in their honor. They have a great team all around the lineup and a good goaltender. Yeah, definitely excited to play them, and it’s going to be a good series.”
Marchessault is also part of a large contingent of the Vegas team which has first-hand memories of losing the 2018 Final.
William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, William Carrier, Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore as well as Marchessault all took part five years ago.
For Florida, almost 30 years after their last appearance in the final, they are back with a shot at the Stanley Cup.
Matthew Tkachuk has led in points in the postseason with 21 (nine goals, 12 assists), but more than that, the 25-year-old has stepped up in the crunch moments when his team has needed him.
He’s netted three overtime goals in the playoffs, including the game-winner on a power play with 4.9 seconds remaining in regulation in Game 4 against Carolina.
Tkachuk said his Panthers team is relishing the feeling of proving people wrong with their run to the final two.
“Kind of that similar feel of being the underdog and trying to prove people wrong again,” Tkachuk said.
“We know what we have in [the locker room]. We know how to play, we know the right way to play, we know what makes us successful. And being in it with the guys and seeing the belief and seeing just the calmness to us is really something special.”
He added: “It’s just so fun being at the rink right now. We’ve 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. It’s something that we’re all really excited for.”
Florida’s run to the Stanley Cup has been unlikely, given its status as a lowest-seeded team and the historic nature of its opposition. The Panthers bested the Bruins in the first round, despite Boston breaking the NHL regular season record for most wins (65) and most points (135) in a single season.
The best-of-seven series between the Knights and Panthers will begin Saturday in Las Vegas.