Golden Knights know from experience Game 1 victory doesn’t ensure win over Panthers

Vegas Golden Knights players celebrate after Game 1 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals...
Vegas Golden Knights players celebrate after Game 1 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals against the Florida Panthers, Saturday, June 3, 2023, in Las Vegas. The Golden Knights defeated the Panthers 5-2. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)(Abbie Parr | AP)
Published: Jun. 5, 2023 at 6:49 AM PDT
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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Vegas Golden Knights were flying high after Game 1 in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, having just beaten Washington and believing they were en route to a miracle championship for the first-year franchise.

Then reality hit in a big way, the Capitals winning the next four games and celebrating on the Knights’ home ice and later on Las Vegas’ famed Strip after Game 5.

It’s a memory that has stuck with seven current Vegas players — the six original Knights and Chandler Stephenson, who was on the Capitals at the time. That experience could be vital after the Knights opened this year’s Stanley Cup Final with a 5-2 Game 1 victory on Saturday over the Florida Panthers.

“I think we’re a little bit more humble to the situation now,” said Jonathan Marchessault, who also played for Vegas in its first Cup Final. “We know that it doesn’t mean anything winning one game in one series. For us, the focus is on next game, and that’s how we’re going to approach every game.”

The Knights have the chance Monday to send a strong message by taking a 2-0 series lead, or the Panthers could show they’re not going anywhere by pulling even to make it a best-of-five.

Florida also has folks who have been in this spot before, and players can look back to losing the first game of the first round against Boston for recent experience. Coach Paul Maurice has stayed even-keeled throughout, and that didn’t change Sunday.

“Why do I got to be in a bad mood today just because we lost the game?” Maurice said. “That also doesn’t do my team any bit of good, to be growling up here or sending messages. That’s not what that group needs from me.”

Perhaps what the Panthers need is a few more bounces and a little less truculence. They took four penalties in the first 50-plus minutes of the game and then many more, including three misconducts, in a late scuffle.

“Staying out of the box is another thing of emphasis for us,” said forward Sam Reinhart, who was held off the scoresheet in the series opener. “We got to play that line where we’re trying to play an aggressive game, an in-your-face game. And we’re trying to play on that line, for sure.”

Other teams have tested the Knights during the playoffs, and sometimes Vegas has responded in ways that has hurt its team. Other times, the Knights have chosen not to retaliate, an approach they mostly took in Game 1.

‘I think it’s more about us just keeping our discipline and playing between the whistles,” Cassidy said. “I don’t think we get rattled by certain things. Obviously, our team has emotion and they will play with it. I think we’ve done a good job across the line for the most part in taking it out of our game when the other teams get to use that as an advantage.”

Cassidy knows what it’s like as a coach to win Game 1, overseeing the Boston Bruins team that took the initial lead in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final over St. Louis. The Blues, who had current Knights Alex Pietrangelo and Ivan Barbashev on that team, came back to win in seven games.

So Vegas’ locker room is filled with those who understand the importance of maintaining urgency in what could potentially be a long series.

Shea Theodore talked before facing the Panthers about how that 2018 team thought it was headed for the championship after that first victory over the Capitals. Perhaps with the disappointment of that outcome still on his mind, when asked Sunday what the experience showed him, Theodore said his only focus was on Game 2.

“Every year, when you lose that last game, you take a lesson out of it,” said William Carrier, another holdover Knights player from that first year. “So all the boys who were here the first year, the first game you’re not winning it right off the bat. You’ve got to keep pushing.”