The Stanley Cup finalists were opposites on Monday, and not because the Knights ventilated Conn Smythe Trophy candidate Sergei Bobrovsky in a decisive (and easy) 7-2 victory that gave Vegas a 2-0 series lead in the National Hockey League championship.
For all the overt and cosmetic displays of “toughness” by the Panthers, who revel in their reputation as shift-disturbers, it’s the steady, unbending Knights who appear through two lopsided wins to have the nerve and fortitude that reflect genuine toughness.
Discipline is toughness. Only one team has it.
The Panthers were so tough they were soft in Game 2. They took two silly penalties early that led to a deficit and displayed little actual resistance around their own net.
It’s like they thought time and space might somehow repel Nicolas Roy when the Knight walked the puck out of the corner, untouched between retreating Panthers Carter Verhaeghe and Casey Fitzgerald, and beat Bobrovsky to make it 3-0 at 2:59 of the second period.
When Brett Howden skated unchecked on to Mark Stone’s pass and outwaited Bobrovsky to make it 4-0 at 7:10, the goalie who co-piloted the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final was hooked by Florida coach Paul Maurice after 13 shots.
The team’s other catalyst, Matthew Tkachuk, had more penalty minutes (22) than playing time (15:57) but did deliver the hit of the game late in the second period on Jack Eichel who, like the rest of the Golden Knights, was undeterred.
As the series moves across the continent to South Florida for Game 3 on Thursday, this final is not close. And it’s not going to be close unless the Panthers smarten up because the Golden Knights are too good and too disciplined to just invite them back into the series.
“Toughness, there’s probably a lot of things that go into the description of that,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It’s not about fighting. To me discipline is more of the mental toughness part of it, knowing that it’s easy to retaliate and get your sort of instant gratification. But to hold it in takes a lot more.
“If you’re going to play a series and the temperature goes up, it’s just going to be required. I think every guy understands that. You’ve got to decide. That’s on the player and good for our guys, really good for our guys.”
Not so much for the Panthers.
Just 6:39 into the game, Florida winger Ryan Lomberg needlessly brought his stick up on Jonathan Marchessault. And 26 seconds after his cross-checking penalty began, Marchessault scored his ninth goal in nine games by lasering a wrist shot past Bobrovsky’s glove.
A few shifts later, Panther defenceman Brandon Montour took an even dumber penalty by elbowing Marchessault in the back of the head. The Knights didn’t score on that power play (but did soon after) and didn’t get a call when Aaron Ekblad cuffed William Karlsson at the first-period buzzer. Ekblad then ridiculously stuck his skate out towards another opponent on his way off the ice.
That’s not toughness. It’s silly.
“It’s not a penalty preventing a goal or a scoring chance, right?” Cassidy said of Montour’s penalty. “So you want to take advantage of those. It’s all about creating some doubt, too, for them because they’ve been the story of the playoffs. So you want to put some doubt in their mind.”
Surely, it is there now.
“We’ve seen what they’ve done in the series before,” Roy said. “They play hard, but they also take penalties after the whistle. It was a big goal from Marchy there on the powerplay to make them pay, and we’re not going to retaliate. We’re going to stay disciplined.”
Is discipline part of being tough?
“Absolutely,” defenceman Alec Martinez, a Stanley Cup winner with the Los Angeles Kings, said after scoring the second Vegas goal. “You’ve got to be able to take a few hacks and whacks to be successful.
“We know the kind of style that they play. They try to get under your skin and we know that we have to stay disciplined. The referees are aware of how they play, too. There’s a fine line between sticking up for yourself and sticking up for your teammates, but then also taking a few shots for the good of the team.”
Each team had four power plays, but Vegas took only one penalty when the game was still winnable for Florida. The Knights were 2-for-4 on the power play, the Panthers 0-for-4.
Marchessault and Howden each scored twice, and 12 Vegas skaters made it on to the score sheet. The Knights have 12 goals in two games from nine different scorers. Their goalie, journeyman Adin Hill, is also badly outplaying Bobrovsky the same way he did Dallas netminder Jake Oettinger in the conference final.
“Every single game it’s going to be different players to step up,” Vegas winger Ivan Barbashev said. “This is probably why we’ve been having success; there’s always somebody else who’s going to step up and score a huge goal.”
“We know we have depth,” Marchessault said. “We know if we roll four lines and get a good forecheck, we’ll get rewarded. And topping that off, I think our discipline has been unbelievable. You know what? They wanted to set the tone with being undisciplined like (they were) in Game 1, and we set the tone back by scoring the first goal there.”
Barbashev also set a physical tone by rocking Florida wrecking ball Radko Gudas when the game was still scoreless. The Tkachuk-alanche on Eichel was an even bigger hit. But Eichel returned, Gudas did not.
“This is the Stanley Cup Final,” Martinez said. “I mean, there’s going to be big hits, there’s going to be things like that that happen. To see (Jack) bounce back and continue there, I mean it gives the guys a big boost.”
In every department, the Knights have just been too much for the Panthers.
“I think our depth has been a strength all year,” Cassidy said. “It is the biggest reason we are still here, why we beat Winnipeg, Edmonton, Dallas, and why we’re ahead against Florida. I just feel that we have the best team from player one through 20. That’s just how I feel.”
That’s how it looks, too.