The Florida Panthers, by all accounts, should not be in this position. Florida massively underperformed this season after posting their best season in team history last season.
The Panthers snuck into the playoffs thanks to fumbling from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Their first-round matchup was against a Boston Bruins team that set multiple NHL regular season records. No one expected this.
And yet, here they are. Florida came back from 3-1 down to defeat the Bruins. They followed that up by winning eight of their next nine games, eliminating the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes en route to the Stanley Cup Final.
With the final just days away, let's take a look into what could be in store for the Panthers. Here are three bold predictions for Florida against the Vegas Golden Knights.
3. The Carter Verhaeghe Show
The Panthers have a number of players who have come up clutch in big moments. Matthew Tkachuk's performance has been well documented as well. However, one player who may be slipping under the radar just a little bit is Carter Verhaeghe.
Verhaeghe scored the game-winning goal in Game 7 against Boston in the first round. He had another game-winning goal in that series and scored another game-winner in Game 1 against Toronto.
Since then, however, the 27-year-old has fallen a bit behind, especially as Tkachuk went off against Carolina. The Panthers forward has a history of clutch goals, so expect him to come up big against Vegas when needed.
2. Matthew Tkachuk stays hot
Perhaps not the boldest of bold takes, but Matthew Tkachuk is not cooling off any time soon. Even with the extended rest for the Panthers, the 25-year-old will continue his torrid pace against Vegas.
Tkachuk has emerged as a true superstar during this playoff run. The Florida star has nine goals and 21 points in 16 games. Against Carolina, Tkachuk scored three of the team's four game-winning goals to win the East.
It is quite incredible the run Tkachuk has been on since Game 5 in Boston. The “rust vs. rest” conversation has merit to an extent. However, it's hard to imagine rust creeping into Tkachuk's game on the biggest stage.
1. A Panther wins the Conn Smythe
You may roll your eyes at this one, but hear me out. I'm not necessarily predicting whether the Panthers win the Cup. I'm saying that no matter who wins hockey's ultimate prize, a Florida Panthers player will win the Conn Smythe.
For this to be the case, there are really only two obvious candidates. Tkachuk is certainly one, as it's hard to imagine the team making it this far without the 25-year-old Arizona native.
The second obvious candidate is goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. “Bob” has turned the clock back this postseason, playing like he did when he was a perennial Vezina candidate.
Since taking over for journeyman Alex Lyon, Bobrovsky has posted a 2.21 goals-against average. Furthermore, he has posted a sparkling .935 save percentage in 14 games during these playoffs.
If we are looking at this from the standpoint of value, both Tkachuk and Bobrovsky have provided more value to the Panthers than anyone has provided to Vegas. That's not to say Vegas doesn't have valuable players. They most certainly do.
However, the value Jack Eichel has provided pales in comparison to that of Tkahcuk or Bobrovsky. If this series goes six or seven games, a Florida Panther should skate away with the Conn Smythe, regardless of who wins the Cup.