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Vegas or Florida? Breaking down a most unexpected Stanley Cup final

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<p><figcaption class=Photograph: John Locher/AP

The Bobrovsky factor

In mid-December, Sergei Bobrovsky’s future with the Florida Panthers was the subject of serious debate. The $10m-per-year netminder was 5-8-1 with a .884 save percentage before Christmas. Spencer Knight, who signed a contract extension worth $4.5 million a year in October, looked like the natural successor, as long as Florida could convince someone to take Bob off their hands this summer. But in February, Knight entered the NHL’s player assistance program with no timeline for his return. Bobrovsky was bumped back to the first string, but struggled again. When an illness sidelined him in late March, Alex Lyon, called up from the AHL, stepped in, went on a tear, and started the playoffs against Boston.

The results were mixed. With Boston up 2-1 in the series, Panthers coach Paul Maurice benched Lyon and went back to Bob. Florida lost Game 4 6-2. It was “a gamble that didn’t pay off,” The Hockey News intoned the following morning. And they were right – for a couple of days. Then things changed. From Game 5 against Boston through to Florida’s sweep of Carolina to earn a spot in the finals, Bobrovsky’s been lights-out, posting a .935 save percentage, breaking Johnny Bower’s record for saves in the first three games of a series, and losing only one game since that Boston start – a 2-1 knife-fight in Game 4 against the Leafs.

Bobrovsky’s back on the case. Can he close it against Vegas?

The rise of ‘Playoff Chucky’

A few days after the Panthers eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes from the playoffs, Florida winger Matthew Tkachuk joined TNT’s NBA playoff broadcast team ahead of Game 6 between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics. Both Florida teams entered their respective playoff races as the 8th seed facing the conference’s best team. Both registered upsets in that first round on their way to the final.

By the time Tkachuk made it to TNT, a more specific comparison had been made – that between him and Jimmy Butler, the Heat’s forward, nicknamed ‘Playoff Jimmy’ for his ability to find another level of play in the postseason. Tkachuk has certainly done that, frustrating the Maple Leafs and causing chaos against Carolina. In the latter series, Tkachuk was dominant, not only scoring three game-winning goals, but also creating chances for others to score and generally making the Hurricanes pay for their mistakes. After losing 4 straight games to the Panthers, ‘Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said, “We didn’t lose four games. We got beat but we were right there. This could have gone the other way.” But it didn’t. And Tkachuk is a major reason why.

Sergei Bobrovsky, the two-time Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goaltender, has won 11 of his past 12 games and not allowed a goal in nearly 100 minutes of overtime this postseason.

Sergei Bobrovsky, the two-time Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goaltender, has won 11 of his past 12 games and not allowed a goal in nearly 100 minutes of overtime this postseason. Photograph: Karl B DeBlake/AP

Is rest best?

For a few days, it looked as though both conference finals would end in sweeps. But Vegas, up 3-0 in their series against the Dallas Stars almost let that lead slip away, winning the series finally 4-2 (with a commanding outing, crushing Dallas 6-0 in Game 6). What might have been an early start to the Cup final for both the Panthers and Golden Knights was thus delayed. But to whose benefit? According to one tally, going back to 2000 teams that swept an opponent were 11-13 when playing their next series against a team that had their series go at least six games. Last year, the Colorado Avalanche had eight days off between their sweep of the Oilers and the start of the final against Tampa Bay – which the Avs won. By the time the Cup final begins Saturday evening, the Panthers will have had nine full days of rest. In theory, Vegas will be the team with the momentum, coming straight from a big win. The question will be whether they can keep it going.

What are the Vegas odds?

A strange thing about the Vegas-Dallas series was how much Jack Eichel was present but absent. As hockey data-cruncher Corey Sznajder noted at All Three Zones, in many respects Eichel was the best player of the series, but did not register a single goal through all six games, and had only four assists. But Eichel was just busy doing other things – the kind of stuff that creates chances for other players, like taking shots, delivering consistent passes, and making effective offensive zone entries. Even without Eichel scoring, Vegas has had no trouble finding the back of the net, having tallied four or more goals in 11 of 17 playoff games this year and outscored teams 3.5 to 1.6 on average at even strength.

Meanwhile, as impressive as Bobrovsky’s save percentage has been between the pipes for Florida, Adin Hill’s is somehow (slightly) better: 0.937. Unlike Bobrovsky, this is Hill’s first postseason, but like Bob, Hill entered it late, losing his first game (against Edmonton), before settling into a more consistent winning groove for Vegas. There’s been a lot of attention on Bobrovsky’s run – and in fairness, his overall record this postseason is better – but Hill has been solid, and could frustrate Florida.

It feels like Florida, but…

The Golden Knights last played the Panthers in March. They lost 2-1, with Hill in goal. Given how the Panthers have been playing, shutting down three good offensive teams already this postseason, this might be the kind of scorelines we can expect during this Cup final. That’s not to say the games will be boring – far from it. In some ways, the two teams are built similarly as deep, tough squads that can capitalize on mistakes, backed by hot goalies, and both coming off dominant conference finals. The Panthers have made a big splash as an 8th seed, but just last year Vegas missed the playoffs entirely. It could be a close one. The buzz is certainly around the Panthers, but Vegas could surprise.

Let’s say Golden Knights in seven.