‘We have our hands full’ against Florida in Cup final, Las Vegas coach says

But the Vegas Golden Knights coach knows he will see a different team from Florida in the 2023 Stanley Cup Final, beginning with Game 1 at T-Mobile Arena on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; TNT, TBS, truTV, CBC, SN, TVAS) .

“Obviously we have our hands full,” Cassidy said Wednesday.

The Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s best regular-season team in 2021-22 and defeated the Washington Capitals in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round, winning a Stanley Cup Playoff series by first time since 1996.

But after the Tampa Bay Lightning swept them in the second round, they made significant changes to become a more playoff-style team this season, most notably hiring coach Paul Maurice on June 22 and acquiring forward Matthew Tkachuk in a trade with the Calgary Flames exactly one month later.

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The adjustment was one of the reasons they struggled in the first half of the regular season. But after a 4-2 loss in Las Vegas on January 12 that left them 19-20-4, they finished 23-12-4 and won the second wild card in the East. In the playoffs, they have defeated three of the top four teams in the regular season standings: the Bruins (first), Carolina Hurricanes (second), and the Toronto Maple Leafs (fourth).

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that fast play used to kill you [against Florida]Cassidy said. “If I could shut that down, I could probably get past them to get to the front of the net, different areas like that.”

The Panthers now create more offense below the goal line, driving drives deep, controlling and going to the front of the net.

Tkachuk is a big part of that. He has 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists) in 16 games, second in the playoffs behind the Dallas Stars center roope hintz, who scored 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) in 19 games. Tkachuk has four game-winning goals, tied for first in the postseason with the Stars forward joe pavelskiincluding three overtime goals, most in the playoffs.

Cassidy said Tkachuk has a high hockey IQ and will challenge the Golden Knights on small area plays.

“We have to find a way to take away his time and space, but take away his options, because he moves the puck so fast, so it’s going to be a delicate balance,” Cassidy said. “And you have to get into him when he gets to the front of the net. We know that. He’s got a great stick and a nose for the net. We’ve got a big ‘D’ who can do that.”

Tkachuk (6-foot-2, 201 pounds) will battle Las Vegas defensemen Nicholas Haya (6-6, 230), brayden mcnabb (6-4, 215), alec martinez (6-1, 210), Alex Pietrangelo (6-3, 215), shea theodore (6-2, 197) and Zach Cloudwhite (6-2, 207).

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“Now our system is layered,” Cassidy said. “We’re not a man-to-man (system). That will help us. We like to have our ‘D’ close to the net for the most part, so I think it will be positive to defend him. So that will be the initial part.

“We know he likes to get involved with the squeaks. That will be resolved one way or another. I think all of our guys have been around and they’ll handle it however they see fit.”

Vegas has experience.

Six players were part of the run to the Cup final in the Golden Knights’ inaugural 2017-18 season: McNabb, Theodore, center william karlsson and forward william carrier, Jonathan Marchessault and reilly smith.

Six have won the Cup with other teams: Martínez (Los Angeles Kings, 2012 and 2014), Pietrangelo (St. Louis Blues, 2019), goalkeeper fast jonathan (Reyes, 2012 and 2014) and onwards Ivan Barbashev (Blues, 2019) and phil kessell (Pittsburgh Penguins, 2016 and 2017), and center chandler stephenson (Capitals, 2018).

“You hope it works in our favor,” Cassidy said. “I can’t help but hear things from the other end. They all hear things from us. They’re enjoying their moment. We’re seeing it on TV and different things. And good for them. They should. It’s hard to get there, and if you have a little bit of time of inactivity, you use it however you see fit. Every team will do it differently.”

The Golden Knights are also a different team from last season. After missing the playoffs for the first time, they made a significant change by hiring Cassidy, and here they are after a 6-0 win over Dallas in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals on Monday.

“I think this team has worked since September in training camp,” Cassidy said. “We changed a few things, and it’s showing now in the playoffs. It showed the other night in Dallas. It was our best game of the playoffs, and it was a good time to have it. So the work that we’ve put in came through, and that’s what we hope will happen in the final for us.”