No Tkachuk and no magic as Vegas beats Panthers in Game 5 to win Stanley Cup
LAS VEGAS — First, the Florida Panthers got the bad news Tuesday that their emotional and scoring leader, Matthew Tkachuk, would miss Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final due to injury with their season on the line.
Then came worse news: The Vegas Golden Knights weren’t missing anything. Not scoring chances. Certainly not the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup and to, “give Vegas the biggest party it’s ever had,” as their armored knight mascot screamed after the second period.
Vegas beat the Panthers 9-3 Tuesday night to take this series 4-1. Vegas got its first championship for a pro team and ended an equally impressive and surprising Panthers run through the playoffs. The nine goals the Panthers gave up in Game 5 was more than the six given up in the entire Carolina series and one less than the 10 in the Toronto series
For a Panthers team in the middle of drama and tight games for the past two months, this was a tough way to go out. They had some openings early like when Anton Lundell broke in alone on Vegas goalie Adin Hill less than three minutes into the game and was stopped.
After killing off an Aaron Ekblad interference penalty later in the first period, the Panthers had a power play after Vegas forward Keegan Kolesar’s interference penalty. Vegas captain Mark Stone took the puck from Sam Bennett, though, and went the length of the ice to score a short-handed goal to make it 1-0 with 8:08 left in the period.
Less than two minutes later, Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky couldn’t secure the puck in a pile around the net and Nicolas Hague made it 2-0.
The Panthers showed some offensive life early in the third period when Ekblad scored his second goal of the playoffs on a shot from the blue line that snuck through traffic. There was the chance this team that rallied to beat Boston in a similar road game to keep that series alive could do the same against Vegas.
That hope was short-lived, though. Vegas scored successive goals by Alec Martinez, Reilly Smith, Stone again and Michael Amadio to make it 6-1 after two periods. Sam Reinhart and Bennett scored in the third period for the Panthers before Stone added an empty-netter for the hat trick.
The absence of Tkachuk deprived the Panthers of not just his spirited game but their leading scorer in the regular season and the playoffs. He went into the NHL’s concussion protocol and, more pertinent to Game 5, suffered an upper-body injury last Thursday in a Game 3 hit from Vegas forward Keegan Kolesar.
Tkachuk returned that game to score a game-tying goal with 2:13 left in regulation and the Panthers won in overtime. He didn’t play much in the third period of Game 4 on Saturday and was non-committal afterward about playing in Game 5.
Coach Paul Maurice had said Tuesday morning he knew Tkachuk’s status for the game but wouldn’t disclose it until game time. Tkachuk, who tied for the league lead with 24 postseason points, was replaced in the line-up by 22-year-old Grigori Denisenko, who played 18 regular-season games with no goals and three assists.
Maurice also shuffled his lines without Tkachuk in search of more firepower. Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Reinhart played with center Sam Bennett. Anton Lundell also was put on the line with Aleksander Barkov and Anthony Duclair to effectively give two stronger scoring lines. The trade-off was a fourth line of Denisenko, Colin White and Zac Dalpe with little NHL experience.
The Panthers tried to find a mental foothold into fighting off elimination. They talked of rallying from a similar 3-1 deficit in the opening round against Boston. They talked of playing, as Maurice said earlier Tuesday, “mentally unencumbered by the weight of the situation, just relaxed and as hard and fast as you can.
“You’ve got to line up any advantages that you have in a game like this and one is that singularity of focus and then you want to make sure you harness the energy.”
This has been a run of finding energy in those moments. Vegas found it again in Game 5 to win the Cup and close the Panthers’ great run.