The Vegas Golden Knights have drawn first blood in the 2023 Stanley Cup Final. After a tight first 40 minutes, the Golden Knights pulled away in the third period for a 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers.
When Panthers forward Anthony Duclair tied the game at 2-2 with 10 seconds left in the second period, it looked like this game was destined for overtime. However, the Golden Knights responded with a strong third period that featured big contributions from Jack Eichel and Mark Stone.
With just under seven minutes elapsed in the third, Eichel created an excellent scoring chance off the rush before assisting on the game-winning goal by Zach Whitecloud. Later in the period, Stone knocked down the Panthers' clearing attempt and immediately roofed a shot over Sergei Bobrovsky to give the Golden Knights some valuable insurance. Vegas has excellent depth, but its top players were locked for this one.
That was more than enough run support for netminder Adin Hill, who stood on his head multiple times throughout Game 1. He made the save of the playoffs on Nick Cousins in the second period, and he turned away Sam Reinhart on a third-period breakaway that would have cut Vegas' lead in half.
Frustrations boiled over for the Panthers late in the third period when Matthew Tkachuk took a double-minor and a 10-minute misconduct. Florida hasn't looked flustered much in these playoffs, but it did tonight.
This was a strong start to the series for Vegas, and Florida will have to come up with an equally strong response in Game 2 on Monday night.
Eichel, Stone step up when it matters most
In the Western Conference Final against the Dallas Stars, the Golden Knights relied heavily on their depth to win the series. Jack Eichel and Mark Stone played well, but they combined for just one goal. Vegas needed more from them in the Stanley Cup Final, and they delivered in Game 1.
With the game tied in the third period, Eichel started the play that led to Zach Whitecould's game-winning goal. Eichel set up Ivan Barbashev with a high-danger scoring chance and recovered the rebound before assisting on Whitecloud's tally.
Stone followed that up by showing off his elite two-way ability in the blink of an eye. One second, he made a great defensive play by denying the Panthers on a clearing attempt. The next second, he fired a perfect shot that went right under the crossbar to give Vegas a 4-2 lead.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Eichel and Stone combined for eight shot attempts, four high-danger chances and two points at five-on-five. That's the type of performance the Golden Knights will need from them moving forward if they want to defeat the Panthers and lift the Stanley Cup.
Sen-shea-tional game from Theodore
Shea Theodore is one of the more underrated defensemen in the NHL, but that won't be the case for long if he plays like this throughout the Stanley Cup Final. As well as Eichel and Stone played, Theodore might have been the best player on the ice for Vegas.
In the second period, Theodore broke through for his first goal of the playoffs, and it was a dandy. He got possession of the puck at the point and put Panthers forward Anthony Duclair in a blender. With Duclair sliding toward the boards, Theodore walked in and zipped a wrist shot past a screened Sergei Bobrovsky.
Theodore's contributions were not limited to that goal or his assist on Jonathan Marchessault's tally in the first period. Not even close. Vegas owned 78.5% of the expected goals when Theodore was on the ice at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick.
Whether he was beating Florida's forecheck or pitching in on the scoreboard, Theodore was a force in all three zones.
Adin Hill outduels Sergei Bobrovsky
Adin Hill and Sergei Bobrovsky have been the two best goaltenders in the playoffs, and the battle between the two of them will go a long way in determining which team wins the Stanley Cup. That being the case, Round 1 goes to Hill.
Hill surrendered a shorthanded goal to Eric Staal in the first period when he over-pursued the play and got beaten on a wraparound attempt. After that, he settled in and played a nearly perfect game.
The Panthers threw 34 shots at Hill, and he stopped 32 of them. But it wasn't just the quantity of saves that was impressive. Hill made some spectacular stops, including the save of the playoffs in which he stole a goal from Nick Cousins by throwing out his paddle and stopping the puck on the goal line.
Bobrovsky wasn't bad in this game, but Hill was clearly the better goaltender. Hill allowed just two goals on 3.08 expected goals against, per Natural Stat Trick. Bobrovsky allowed four goals on 33 shots and 4.08 expected goals against.
Hill won the goaltending battle in Game 1, but Bobrovsky has played like a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate throughout the playoffs, and I expect him to bounce back in Game 2.