The Vegas Golden Knights come from behind to defeat the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The Vegas Golden Knights come from behind to defeat the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

 The Vegas Golden Knights, back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and behind the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, delivered a very obvious message.

“We were ready,” remarked Jonathan Marchessault.

Prepared and unwavering. Vegas recovered from an early hole, grabbed the game-winning goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes remaining, and Adin Hill made probably the biggest save of the playoffs to defeat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the best-of-seven series lead.

“We kept our composure, and it was good,” Marchessault, one of six original Knights players remained from the franchise’s inception in 2017, said after scoring the game-tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and to be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

Whitecloud put Vegas up, and after a vital penalty kill, captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed and affirmed for a high stick. Reilly Smith added an empty-netter to make the score appear much more lopsided than it was.

After a contentious start between Sun Belt clubs that took no time getting acquainted with heavy hits during play and lots of post-whistle pushing and shoving, the combination of that offence and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas ahead.

“It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defender Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs, snapping a 27-game skid that had begun on March 7. “They wanted to play that way. We were simply trying not to get involved.”

That is just the beginning. The second game is scheduled for Monday in Las Vegas.

The Panthers ratcheted up the physical play late in the game after falling down by two points. A slew of penalties arising from a skirmish with 4:24 left the Florida bench severely depleted.

The result had been decided long before then.

After falling down on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that drained the life out of the 18,432 spectators, the Golden Knights recovered for their seventh comeback victory of the playoffs. Marchessault, who has become renowned in Las Vegas for scoring huge goals, responded before the conclusion of the first period.

Hill made a desperate stick stop early in the second period to deny Nick Cousins what would have been a certain goal. The save was reminiscent of one made by Washington’s Braden Holtby five years ago in the identical crease against Vegas.

“That’s an unreal save — it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy remarked. “You need those saves at key moments.”

The Golden Knights’ momentum was unaffected by Anthony Duclair’s tying goal with 10.2 seconds remaining in the second period. With two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, Whitecloud’s goal enthralled spectators once again.

Bobrovsky, playing in his first final, dismissed any cause for worry after saving 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this playoffs.

“I played a good game,” remarked Bobrovsky. “I had a good game. Aside from goals, they produced numerous decent opportunities. They had a number of nice scoring opportunities, which was entertaining.”

When the game was over, part of the enjoyment began.

Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was irritated by Nick Cousins charging into his crease and threw a jab at the agitated Panthers winger, resulting in a few scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk expressed his displeasure with a hit in the corner on Cousins and a contact with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

“If guys come into my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything crazy or go crazy, but I do need to stand up for myself.”

Florida coach Paul Maurice, in the final for the first time since 2001, maintained the same cool demeanour he demonstrated in the previous round, when his club went down 1-0 and 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before prevailing in seven games.

“It’s going to be tight,” Maurice predicted. “Everyone take a deep breath.”

The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in their six-year history, having made it in their initial season five years ago. In 2018, Vegas won the first game but lost the series against Washington in five games.

For the first time since 1996, the Panthers are vying for the Stanley Cup. Florida was swept by Colorado in the championship game 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s top scorer this year, was born.

It is the 66th different Cup final matchup in NHL history, and the 46th since the expansion period started in 1967-68. This is the first final featuring two clubs that had never won the league title since Washington-Vegas, and just the third occasion since the turn of the century.

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