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Stanley Cup Final tale of the tape: The 30 categories that will determine the winner

The Stanley Cup Final between the Florida Panthers and the Vegas Golden Knights is expected to be a tightly played series, without an overwhelming favorite to win it all.

That is until you really start to get granular with the matchup. Then you know exactly which team will win it all.

Here is a preposterously in-depth look at the Final in which we determine the winner through 30 separate categories: looking at the Panthers and Golden Knights on the ice, off the ice, in the stands and in the culture.

Which team will hoist the Cup? Let’s break it down and then break it down some more:


On ice

Forwards

With due respect to Jack Eichel, the Panthers might have the two best forwards in the series in Matthew Tkachuk and Aleksander Barkov. What they don’t have is the spread of talent through four lines like Vegas has, with William Karlsson (10 goals) on its third line and the William Carrier-led fourth line clicking at a 64% clip in expected goals at 5-on-5. Advantage: Golden Knights

Defensemen

Like with Florida at forward, Vegas might have the two best defensemen in this series in Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore. But they also have the best overall blue-line depth in the series too: Their third pairing of Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud are giving up 1.01 goals against per 60 minutes, which leads any D-pairing in the series. Also, where did Brandon Montour‘s Cale Makar impression go? No points in the past eight games. Advantage: Golden Knights

Goaltender

Don’t overlook Adin Hill. He’s fourth in goals saved above expected this postseason and was the backbone for two conference final shutouts. He’s playing a bit better than “just don’t lose us the game.” That established, we’ve got two words for ya: Playoff Bob. The Panthers’ Sergei Bobrovsky is 11-2, has a .935 save percentage and basically won them the second-round matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs on his own. Two Vezina trophies plus a Stanley Cup win plus a Conn Smythe equals the Hockey Hall of Fame for Bob? Advantage: Panthers

Special teams

The Panthers have thrived on their power play (27.9% in the playoffs), going 4-for-16 against a Carolina Hurricanes team that had the playoffs’ best penalty kill. Florida’s PK is average (71.2%) but a leap ahead of Vegas (63.0%), which has the worst penalty kill statistically of any team that advanced past Round 1. Of course, playing the Edmonton Oilers will do that to a team, for what it’s worth. Hill has helped their PK improve a bit. Its power play is clicking at just 18.5%, down from 20.3% in the regular season. Advantage: Panthers

Rest vs. rust

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Panthers’ nine-day break between games before the Stanley Cup Final is tied for the fourth longest in NHL history. The teams ahead of them are the 1919 Montreal Canadiens, whose Final was cancelled after five games because of the flu epidemic; and the 2019 Boston Bruins and 2003 Anaheim Ducks, who both lost the Cup in seven games. Advantage: Golden Knights


Off ice

Coach

The Panthers dismissed first-year interim coach Andrew Brunette after their last postseason partially due to his inability to make the right adjustments in the playoffs. Paul Maurice was his antithesis: coaching the fourth-most games in NHL history (1,767) and over 100 playoff games. He’s pushed the right bottoms and managed their emotions well, but Maurice remains a coach who looks like the smartest guy in the room when his goaltender is playing lights-out. Bruce Cassidy has managed his roster well and gave the Knights the structure to improve team defense, as well as weather significant roster disruptions to injury — especially in goal. Advantage: Golden Knights

General manager

Bill Zito is up for general manager of the year for pulling off the trade of the season: Sending Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar to Calgary for Tkachuk and then getting Tkachuk to sign a huge extension. But it’s his steady augmentation of this roster — Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Montour, Carter Verhaeghe — that’s made the Panthers a Cup finalist. Kelly McCrimmon’s unsentimental approach to management has led to some off-ice drama — remember this? — but he’s leveraged a desirable location to attract and retain talent like Pietrangelo. Advantage: Panthers

Owner

Two Army men face off for the Cup. Vincent Viola, once President Donald Trump’s nominee for United States Secretary of the Army, gave a meandering franchise solid ownership and organization, while funding big money deals for Tkachuk, Barkov and Bobrovsky. The NHL came to Las Vegas because of Bill Foley, whose investment in the team and hockey in the city have paid off quickly. His original six-year plan to win a Stanley Cup might actually end up as a realistic timeline. Advantage: Golden Knights

Homegrown talent

“Homegrown” is admittedly a fluid term for a team that entered the NHL in 2017-18. But Vegas has six players from its expansion season and two more players it drafted that are seeing playoff action. As original Golden Misfit Jonathan Marchessault told me, it’s the O.G. members of the roster who help sustain the team’s success through the years. The Panthers have only three players they drafted who have seen time in the playoffs, but they’re key players: Barkov, defenseman Aaron Ekblad and center Anton Lundell. Advantage: Golden Knights


Aesthetics

Home jerseys

There are binary choices in Vegas. You either put your chips on the table or you don’t bet. Same deal with their current home sweaters, the gold metallic ones: You’re either in or you’re out. And I’m out. Now, to get the Panthers to make their Reverse Retro jerseys their home primaries … Advantage: Panthers

Road jerseys

Two absolutely gorgeous road sweaters. The Panthers have that red stripe that accentuates their logo. The Golden Knights’ unique color scheme has always popped on their away jerseys more distinctly than on any other sweater. The Knights get the nod for having a better collection of logos. Advantage: Golden Knights

Team name

Fun fact: Original Panthers owner Wayne Huizenga, the founder of Blockbuster Video, wanted to call the team the Florida Blockbusters, featuring a sledgehammer-wielding construction worker. Panthers is better, if not as memorable as, say, the Golden Knights, who Foley settled on and then settled with the U.S. Army over a trademark dispute. In a perfect world, they would be the Miami Panthers because in a perfect world they’d play in Miami. But props to the Knights for not overloading their name with “Las Vegas” and opting for just “Vegas” instead. Advantage: Golden Knights

Playoff beards

Radko Gudas. Game. Set. Match. Advantage: Panthers

Playoff slogan

Vegas has labeled the Stanley Cup Final as “Unknight the Realm: Final Conquest,” which sounds like that role playing game you couldn’t get into during high school. The Panthers take this one easily, as they’ve taken the hubristic “We want Florida!” chant from overconfident Maple Leafs fans and turned it into an e-commerce cash cow. Advantage: Panthers


Game night

Plastic animal tossing

The Golden Knights have the victory flamingo. It was first tossed by a fan named Drew Johnson in 2018 to inspire the team, and has been adopted as a tradition when Vegas wins at home. The Panthers have the rat, which fans have been tossing on the ice since 1995-96. That’s when forward Scott Mellanby killed a rat in the locker room with his stick and then scored two goals with the same stick. The “rat trick” was born and the tradition has spanned for decades. Advantage: Panthers

Home arena advantage

The Panthers have energized their fans over the past few seasons, having qualified for the postseason in three straight years after making the playoffs only twice since 2000. They were 23-13-5 at home in the regular season and 4-3 in the playoffs. The Golden Knights were 25-15-1 at home in the regular season and 6-2 in the playoffs. They also have an incomparable game presentation, from the lights and sounds to the showgirls and Medieval Times stage show that precedes each game. Not to mention the occasional bout of the Vegas Flu for opponents. Advantage: Golden Knights

Goal song

The Panthers have individual goal songs which span from the sublime (“The Chucky Song” for Tkachuk) to the ridiculous (“Barbra Streisand” by Duck Sauce for Lundell). Is it overall a step down from using Jimmy Eat World’s “Sweetness” in previous seasons? Probably. But taken as a whole, we prefer these tunes to the Golden Knights’ use of “Vegas Lights” by Panic! At The Disco. If you want a Vegas native goal song, go “Mr. Brightside.” If you want a Vegas-centric song, go “Viva Las Vegas!” Advantage: Panthers

Postgame trinket

The Panthers have started giving out a rawhide dog bone to their players. No, not in lieu of a pregame meal, although that would be cost-effective. It’s given to the hardest working player on the team, aka the player with the “most dog in them.” The Golden Knights, meanwhile, hand out an Elvis wig and sunglasses their resident hunka burnin’ love (aka the player of the game). Let’s see … the team in Las Vegas evoking Elvis or the team with the cat mascot handing out a dog bone? Advantage: Golden Knights

Mascots

The Vegas mascot is Chance, a Gila monster whose head looks like a scored mango. Which is to say the Golden Knights mascot is not a knight. The Panthers’ mascot is, in fact, a feline: Stanley C. Panther. But he was joined by a second mascot in 2014: Viktor E. Ratt, last seen in an altercation with a very, very upset Lightning fan. Two is greater than one. Advantage: Panthers


2023 Stanley Cup playoffs

Best playoff moment

The Golden Knights have had some wonderful moments during this run to the Stanley Cup. But they did not eliminate the best regular season team of all time with four straight wins, culminating in a Game 7 overtime victory that shocked the sports world. And they also won the sixth-longest NHL game in history with a quadruple overtime goal. Advantage: Panthers

Best individual goal

For the Golden Knights, it’s this stick dribbling goal from Mark Stone against the Jets:

For the Panthers, it’s this Barkov goal from Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final:

Wayne Gretzky said Barkov’s goal was “one of the greatest moves I’ve seen in the Stanley Cup playoffs.” Nuff said. Advantage: Panthers

Most unsung hero

Gustav Forsling doesn’t hit the scoreboard that often, but he’s the Cats’ second-highest skater in average ice time (26:44) and helps anchor their effective pairing with Aaron Ekblad. He won the unsung hero award in the regular season, too. But Vegas goalie Adin Hill has done the seemingly impossible: Stabilized a position that many felt would be the undoing of the Knights. And he did so after being called into duty following an injury to Laurent Brossoit. Even after two conference final shutouts, he’s underappreciated. Advantage: Golden Knights

Postseason quote

The Knights had a contender here in Bruce Cassidy’s lament about his team’s Game 5 effort against Dallas, in which he dunked on the Arizona Coyotes for no good reason. “We had 24 giveaways. I’m not sure you’re beating the Arizona Coyotes in January with 24 giveaways. No disrespect to Arizona, but it’s not the right way to play,” he said of a team that beat the Golden Knights in January.

Cassidy has since apologized for the comment, so that leaves this absolutely bonkers Paul Maurice quote as the clear winner. The Panthers coach was asked about Barkov’s injury status after Game 3 against the Hurricanes. “He’s at a bar mitzvah. His neighbor had … yeah, that’s what we’ll go with. Bar mitzvah, and he didn’t want to disappoint the kids,” he said.

When asked if it was an upper or lower (injury), Maurice said: “The bar mitzvah? It was on two floors, both floors. It was a big one. Lots of kids.” Advantage: Panthers


Cultural relevance

Pop culture cache

For a franchise that’s been around since the early 1990s, the Panthers don’t exactly have a massive cultural footprint. A brief glimpse of a jersey in Spike Lee’s “Clockers.” A now unfortunate association with actor Kevin Spacey, whose face was featured on a “player of the game” sweatshirt that became a viral sensation. Tkachuk has helped with his recent appearance in TNT’s “Inside The NBA,” but the franchise has a ways to go. The Golden Knights have only been around since 2017, but their outrageous pregame ceremonies have captured mainstream attention — including at least one think piece on whether they’re “historically accurate.” Advantage: Golden Knights

‘Hockey Town’ cred

We suppose it’s about time to address the snowbird in the room: The Panthers’ surge in fandom is extremely impressive and promising, but also undeniably recent. For years, Florida games were best known as an affordable destination for visiting fans to enjoy lovely winter weather. We’re 15 years removed from the team giving away a free ticket to anyone with a valid Florida driver’s license. We’re one month removed from the Panthers trying to block Leafs fans from buying road playoff tickets. Las Vegas, meanwhile, has matured into a hockey-mad city rather briskly. Even as the Raiders, A’s and probably an NBA team roll into Sin City, the love for the Golden Knights and hockey in general continues to surge. Check out their facility in Summerlin if you want to see packed stands for a practice. Advantage: Golden Knights

City at large

Passing time on the gorgeous beaches of South Florida while watching the clouds waft in the sky vs. having no comprehension of time in the windowless gambling dens of Las Vegas while watching your money disappear. Sorry … we’re sportswriters. Advantage: Golden Knights

Celebrity fans

The Panthers have certainly made inroads here, attracting pro golf star Brooks Koepka, Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel, Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler and TNT broadcaster Charles Barkley to the bandwagon. The Vegas bandwagon is … very Vegas. Viva variety, as they say: Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper, actor Josh Duhamel, chef Gordon Ramsay, poker star Daniel Negreanu and most of the talent with residencies on the Strip. Rapper Lil’ Jon and crooner Wayne Newton once collaborated on a Golden Knights anthem to celebrate their gold jerseys. Advantage: Golden Knights


What the Hockey Gods deem

Best ‘Old Guy Without a Cup’

When it comes to OGWACs — a term coined by the great Sean McIndoe — the Golden Knights have a problem: All their old guys have Cups. Jonathan Quick and Alec Martinez won with the Kings. Alex Pietrangelo won with the Blues. Phil Kessel, condemned to the press box since Game 4 against Winnipeg, won with Pittsburgh. Their oldest player without a Cup? Jonathan Marchessault, at 32 years old. The Panthers have a legit OGWAC in defenseman Marc Staal, 36, who watched both his brothers win Cups while he’s chased his for 1,101 games. Combine that with a 34-year-old Bobrovsky chasing his first Cup, and Florida owns the OGWAC corner. Advantage: Panthers

History-making potential

While both teams are chasing their first Stanley Cup, the Panthers’ run to the Final has been remarkable, with some incredible moments along the way. But the Knights’ run from Stanley Cup Final appearance in their inaugural season to now is perhaps the most impressive launch for a franchise in recent sports history. Advantage: Golden Knights

Hockey karma

The Knights’ success did come at a cost. There were moments when fan favorites were tossed aside in the same manner that the original “misfits” were jettisoned by their earlier teams. Players like Marc-Andre Fleury, Nate Schmidt, Paul Stastny and others. Those moments transformed the team from ramshackle and lovable to business-like. The Panthers, meanwhile, feel like a team of destiny after their run through the East. Can the players who took down the Bruins, crushed the Leafs to the point of a general manager change and won that Game 1 marathon against the Hurricanes really not end up as champions? Advantage: Panthers


The final tally

The Golden Knights win 16 categories to the Panthers 14. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

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