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What we learned in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final

After a four-day break following the conclusion of the Western Conference final, the Vegas Golden Knights began the 2023 Stanley Cup Final with a 5-2 victory over the Florida Panthers, taking a 1-0 series lead.

It was an even game until the third period, when many Vegas shots found the back of the net while many Florida shots struck iron.

What else did we learn about these two teams in Game 1, and how will it impact the rest of the series? ESPN’s Ryan S. Clark, Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski check in:


The start of something big for Theodore?

Is it the fact that Shea Theodore scored in Game 1? Or is it more about how he scored in Game 1 that should be the area of focus? It’s possible Theodore’s first goal of the playoffs could offer more insight into how he could score a few more in the coming games.

Theodore had just received possession when he walked it out to the blue line, skating laterally with Anthony Duclair in front of him. Theodore then did a spin in one direction before stopping, cutting and going in another direction. It created separation that left Duclair in his wake, giving Theodore the space to get into the slot before launching the shot that gave the Golden Knights a 2-1 second-period lead. Golden Knights captain Mark Stone said he was surprised to learn that was Theodore’s first postseason goal because of how much offense he creates for his teammates.

“When you have a little bit of space, that’s your time to be creative,” Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said. “Whether they go back down the wall or into the middle. Shea has the ability to move laterally as good as any defenseman I’ve ever seen.”

The coach also inferred that this could be a turning point for the 27-year-old blueliner.

“It looks like it was pretty good coverage at first. But, again, he found his soft spot and then [Brett Howden‘s] at the net,” Cassidy said. “I don’t know who got the assist on the goal but at the end of the day, he’s going to take away [Sergei] Bobrovsky’s eyes and we’ve talked about that a lot. Really good play by him and you’re starting to see his game come around.” — Clark

The “original six” continue to step up

This is still the Golden Misfits team. The first year of existence for the franchise was all about the players with a chip on their shoulder — because their previous teams didn’t want them. It was an “us against the world” mentality.

Then it became the world against Vegas, as the team aggressively traded for and acquired veteran players, including other teams captains.

But the six original Golden Misfits still on the roster — Theodore, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, William Carrier and Brayden McNabb — have played a huge role for Vegas. They scored three of the five goals in Game 1, after accounting for four of the six goals in the clinching game of the Western Conference final. — Kaplan

Get them a nickname!

Every so often, a fourth line becomes the most dependable line for a Stanley Cup winner. Like the Crash Line for the 1995 Devils or the Grind Line for multiple Detroit Red Wings champions or the Merlot Line for the 2011 Boston Bruins. The Vegas Golden Knights’ line of Carrier, Nicolas Roy and Keegan Kolesar may not have a well-known nickname yet, but they’ve clearly earned the trust of head coach Bruce Cassidy in key situations, as evidenced by Game 1.

This trio of forwards saw the most ice time against the Panthers’ explosive line of Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett and Nick Cousins. For just the second time in their entire playoff run, Florida didn’t get an even-strength point from any of the three. The play of the Knights’ fourth line was a big reason for that: Bending but not breaking, checking hard and mixing it up with the Panthers but not crossing the line. Beyond that matchup, the Knights’ fourth line kept the energy up shift after shift early in the game.

“We just read off each other pretty well,” Roy said. “It’s not really complicated the way we play, right? Three big guys. Be hard on the forecheck. Be hard to play against. When we have the puck, we protect it well. But we’re also really good defensively.” — Wyshynski

The legend of Adin Hill grows

Adin Hill is going to get paid this summer. It’s hard to believe the goalie was only acquired for a fourth-round pick, and technically was Vegas’ fourth-stringer.

The 27 year old — a pending unrestricted free agent — has showed up consistently ever since taking over the net. And his stretching paddle save on Nick Cousins early in the second period to keep the score tied 1-1 was the highlight of the night.

As Zach Whitecloud told me after the game: “That right there literally is who Adin Hill has been for us since he came to us. … You love playing for a guy like that because no matter the situation, he shows up.” — Kaplan

Rough stuff gets going early

A tug of the sweater followed by a quick jab attempt or two to the face. Usually, an exchange such as that could lead to a reaction. This is what Matthew Tkachuk was trying to elicit from Alex Pietrangelo late in the second period, only to have the Golden Knights alternate captain hold firm.

That particular exchange with Pietrangelo and Tkachuk was one of many between the Golden Knights and Panthers. It’s also possible that it could serve as a prelude in a series that could be decided by what team can master what it means to play the game within the game. If so, then it leaves both teams trying to toe the line that allows them to be physical while not being reckless.

Here’s something to keep in mind. The Golden Knights went from averaging 7.18 penalty minutes per game in the regular season to 14.8 penalty minutes in the playoffs. As for the Panthers? They are averaging 14.65 penalty minutes per game in the playoffs after averaging 12.17 per game in the regular season.

“We’ve done it all year. We’ll stick up for one another but it’s also the maturity of this group, just being able to kind of hang back a bit,” Golden Knights goaltender Adin Hill said, after he was part of a first-period scrum that saw him jab the Panthers’ Nick Cousins. “It’s like when they do that stuff, they’re going to try and instigate us. We don’t need to react. We need to stay focused on the game plan.” — Clark

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