Golden Knights halfway to the Stanley Cup

The Golden Knights dominated the Florida Panthers to win Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final 7-2 for a commanding 2-0 series lead.

LAS VEGAS — Going into the Stanley Cup Final, I had a few reservations concerning the Vegas Golden Knights and their ability to beat the Florida Panthers and win the Stanley Cup.

I thought Florida’s forecheck would negate the Golden Knights’ speed and limit their transition game. I believed the Panthers had the edge in goal with Sergei Bobrovsky and I even believed destiny and the hockey gods were siding with the Cats, who have made the most improbable of runs in the NHL playoffs to get to this point.

Florida was the last team to qualify for the playoffs and needed some help to leap over Pittsburgh for the final spot in the Eastern Conference. Then they beat Boston, the Presidents’ Trophy winner, got by Toronto, then eliminated Carolina. In doing so, Paul Maurice’s team had played some exceptional hockey.

But after the Knights took care of business in Game 2 with a convincing 7-2 performance Monday at T-Mobile Arena and a 2-0  series lead in the Cup Final, I can honestly say I was wrong.

Vegas is the faster team. Vegas is the tougher team. Vegas is the deeper team. Vegas has had the better goaltender and as the series heads to Sunrise for Game 3 Thursday, the Knights accomplished what they needed to do, which is hold serve on home ice and looked dominant in doing it.

I have said this many times over the years and I always believe that the home team that wins Game 1 is under more pressure to hold serve in Game 2. Keeping home ice is huge in hockey for the obvious reasons — last change, crowd energy, comforts of being in your own bed and familiarity with your rink. By virtue of Monday’s win, the Knights can win the Stanley Cup without taking a game in Florida. That’s huge. 

“I think everyone is comfortable in their roles and it makes playing easier,” said forward Brett Howden, who scored twice Monday.

The script Vegas has followed in its Cup run hasn’t really deviated. The Knights are able to use their speed to create mismatches and scoring opportunities. The defense continues to block shots all over the place. The team’s top offensive players, led by Jonathan Marchessault, are showing the way. Marchessault, one of six original Golden Misfits from the inaugural season and Cup finalist in 2018, had a pair of goals Monday to help lock up Game 2 and he now has 12 for the postseason. He’s worthy of serious consideration for the Conn Smythe Trophy, which goes to the MVP of the playoffs. 

So is Adin Hill, the goaltender who has won the hearts of the denizens of the Fortress with his acrobatic saves, his toughness and his ability to keep the puck out of his net.

Hill started his 11th consecutive game Monday, the first time in his career that he has played with that kind of regularity. He stopped Carter Verhaeghe on a first-period breakaway, denying the Panthers a great opportunity to take an early lead and perhaps gain some momentum that they desperately needed. He kept making saves, both easy and difficult, stymieing Florida at every turn and increasing the frustration level of the Panthers with every stop. Included was a trio of big saves during a Panthers power play in the first period when the game was still a one-goal affair.

He lost his shutout early in the third period only to have Marchessault respond at the other end with his second of the game and return the four-goal difference at 5-1.

“I’m just living in the moment and having fun,” Hill said after his 29-save performance which improved his postseason record to 9-3. “It’s been the greatest experience of my life.”

The Knights tried to not lose their composure as the Panthers tried to goad them into skirmishes and take penalties. Matthew Tkachuk, the chief agitator for Florida, found himself earning a 10-minute misconduct for the second straight game and while Ivan Barbashev joined him in detention for their second-period dustup, being smart about things was certainly a challenge. 

Tkachuk picked up a second misconduct following what was a clean hit on Jack Eichel that forced Eichel to the Knights’ dressing room to regroup before he returned to the game.

“It was a clean hit,” Eichel said. “It’s a physical game. You’re going to get hit sometimes. You just move on.”

Sometimes human nature dictates you put a glove in a guy’s face or catch him in the back with your stick. The Knights showed enough restraint not to let temptation bite them. And that pleased coach Bruce Cassidy.

“Tonight’s game was a man’s game,” he said as the two teams combined for 148 minutes in penalties. “I thought our guys responded the right way. 

“It’s easy to retaliate and get your instant gratification. But it takes mental toughness to not retaliate. If we have to take a punch in the face, that’s what we’ll do.”

In addition to having tough guys, the Knights have a bunch of intelligent guys, led by their captain, Mark Stone. He made a sensational play in the second period when he broke his stick in the Vegas end, knocked Florida’s Brandon Montour down at the blue line en route to the bench to receive a new twig, wound up getting the puck on his stick from Chandler Stephenson, then found Howden alone and got it to him. Howden made a nifty deke to get Bobrovsky out of position and put a backhander past him for a 4-0 lead and an end to the Russian goalie’s evening as Alex Lyon relieved him. 

On a night where the offensive contributions came from up and down the lineup — two goals from Howden along with the pair from Marchessault, one from Nic Roy, Michael Amadio and Alec Martinez and a dozen guys wearing gold and black finding their way onto the scoresheet, that depth continues to serve the Knights well. And it may very well be what earns the franchise its name on the Stanley Cup and a parade down the Las Vegas Strip, assuming they can stop the construction and repaving of the street in preparation for the F1 auto race in November long enough to hold a parade. 

“Our depth is the biggest reason we’re here,”Cassidy said. “I do believe it’s been the strength of our team.”

But there’s still a lot of hockey to be played. Marchessault said as much as you would expect him to. And while the Golden Knights have never been closer to winning the sport’s most cherished prize in their brief six-year history and their fan base never more optimistic, they still have to win two more games in order to get their mitts on the shiny silver chalice and their names on the Cup. 

The Panthers will not go quietly. As coach Paul Maurice said after the game, “The parts of our game we have to improve, we have to get to real fast.”

Can they? Dogs may roll over and play dead, but I haven’t seen many Cats do it. Then again, I’ve seen a cat or two get run over. These Cats may not be able to avoid the Vegas steamroller.