Zach Whitecloud scored from long range with just over 13 minutes left, after Adin Hill made arguably the best save of the playoffs, and the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Florida Panthers 5-2 Saturday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Whitecloud's goal put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. That combination, plus Hill's 33 saves, gave Vegas the lead in the series after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.
Original Knights players Jonathan Marchessault and Shea Theodore also scored on Florida's two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky.
Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.
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The Panthers ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.
But the outcome was determined long before that.
After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault — known since arriving in Las Vegas when the franchise got its start for scoring big goals — answered before the end of the first period and Theodore scored his first since March 7 in the second.
In between, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas — in the same crease — five years ago.
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Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.
The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games. Six players are left from that original team.
The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.
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It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.