The Golden Knights are leading the Panthers, but the series is being played on Florida’s terms: controlled savagery


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May 19, 2023

The Golden Knights are leading the Panthers, but the series is being played on Florida’s terms: controlled savagery

Matthew Tkachuk, left, of the Florida Panthers checks Jack Eichel of the Vegas

Matthew Tkachuk, left, of the Florida Panthers checks Jack Eichel of the Vegas Golden Knights during Game Two of the 2023 NHL Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena on June 05, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Of the blows landed so far in the Stanley Cup final, Matthew Tkachuk landed the one that will live forever in YouTube reels.

In Monday's Game 2, Florida's Tkachuk put Vegas forward Jack Eichel into his guidance mechanism and eliminated the target. Eichel saw it coming at the last minute, causing him to duck, putting his head into the strike zone.

It was a perfectly legal, shoulder-as-the-point-of-contact, full-body sledgehammer. You don't see hits like that in the NHL any more. In the regular season, they get called just because they look bad. And whether or not they’re called, they start an automatic fight.

Who wants that hassle in the phony season? It's easier to lollygag around in open ice, never having to worry if there's a guy just outside your peripheral vision intending to decapitate you. Hence, no big hits.

You have to wait until the last stages of the playoffs to watch hockey played at full, brutal intensity. (The NHL wonders why fewer people are watching its 82-game preseason schedule – there's Reason No. 347.)

Controlled savagery has been the non-secret sauce of Florida's unlikely playoff run. The Panthers aren't as talented as everyone else. They don't have a power play that scores three-quarters of the time. What they have is a willingness to show up at work, punch the first person they meet in the face and then see what he's going to do about it.

Boston tried, but they arrived too beat up already. The Leafs handed over their lunch money without any backtalk. Carolina saw what was coming and tried reciprocating, but was insufficiently prepared for the pain that would entail.

But Vegas is. The Golden Knights are brutal; they are skilled; they are deep; and their goalie is on an almighty heater.

The next time you hear Edmonton or Toronto talk about the "little things" they need to do to improve, think of all the very big things a team like Vegas already has figured out. That's the gap. A new defenceman on the second power-play unit is not going to close it.

But in this instance, the violence comes first.

A full period before Tkachuk tenderized Eichel, Vegas had transmitted its own message: ‘Dear-Florida-stop-We-will-fight-you-stop-Keep-head-up.’

Early in the first, the Panthers were called for a crosscheck. During the nether-time before the play was whistled dead, Florida's Radko Gudas took a mental coffee break.

If Tkachuk is the tip of Florida's spear, Gudas is the butt end of it across the back of your head. He doesn't just play scary. He looks scary.

His annihilation of Toronto's David Kampf in Game 4 of that series – after which he stood over Kampf like Ali over Liston – was the cherry pit on top of that 10-day beating.

But now Gudas was caught drifting around the neutral zone like an untethered boat. Vegas's Ivan Barbashev put him in his sights.

Like Eichel, Gudas saw what was coming too late to do anything about it. The play was over. There was no need to finish that check. Which did not stop Barbashev from picking up speed, launching two-footed and following through with his shoulder. As he hit the ice, Gudas's arms shot out like a cartoon cat going splat. Give the guy credit – he got up.

That's not how you beat Florida right now. You beat them by scoring more, same as ever. But if you are not willing to include hockey's dark arts into your game plan, then don't even bother. It's not about pushing back. It's about pushing first.

Vegas is up 2-0. It has put up baseball scores in both games. Its goalie, Adin Hill, looks like he could stop every loonie fired from the point, never mind every puck.

But do you believe it's over? No, me neither.

You don't need to think too hard about it to see Florida's strategy. It's not going to overwhelm a team as committed as Vegas. It has to be willing to bleed its opponent. The hits the Panthers deliver in the first two games may not pay off until Game 6 or 7.

As Game 2 wound down with the score lopsided, the Panthers didn't just continue to needle their opponents. The needling increased. Sneaky little sticks in scrums and face washes at every opportunity.

The teams took 148 penalty minutes combined in Game 2. Back in the seventies, when every guy on either team was a goon, they didn't put up those kinds of numbers.

Florida landed twice as many big hits on Monday night. Vegas is winning, but this series is being played on Florida's terms.

If you spend most of your time concentrated on the Leafs, you’d have expected the Panthers’ post-game to be one of those lights-are-too-bright-in-here jobs. Whale eyes and lots of incomprehensible mumbling.

Not Tkachuk. At worst, he looked bemused. At best, like it was all going how he’d hoped.

Someone tried baiting him with a question about letting tempers take over. Tkachuk does not get baited. He does the baiting.

"I just don't think there's teams that play as physical as we do, so maybe you guys [the media] think that it's a little bit too much," Tkachuk said. "I think if we were playing physical and up in the game, you guys would be, like, ‘That's the recipe for success.’ "


Call me sentimental, but I still like Florida in this series. The Panthers point a way forward in the NHL that isn't about the team that tanks hardest and drafts highest, but one that emphasizes chemistry and mentality. They represent an NHL that is less about luck and more about will. It's an imaginary league in which anyone can compete in any given year if they’re smart enough.

Plus, let's face it, the Panthers are fun to listen to. How many NHL teams are fun like that anymore?

Whoever wins, we are being reminded again that tactics and talent management get you into the playoffs. But once you’re there, it's a two-month line brawl. Some teams understand and enjoy that pressure, while other teams play in Canada.