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Just Pull The Goalie Earlier Next Time

10:28 AM EDT on June 14, 2023

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JUNE 13: Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Florida Panthers sits in the crease after Mark Stone #61 of the Vegas Golden Knights scored an empty-net hat trick goal against the Florida Panthers during the third period in Game Five of the 2023 NHL Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena on June 13, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Paul Maurice almost surely knew his Florida Panthers were doomed when he saw Matthew Tkachuk's teammates helping him put his gear on before Game 4 of a series that ended in five. When your most important catalyst has to be tended to because his sternum has cracked, you are no longer playing with the casino's money, but with your kid's college fund.

Still, there was something charmingly beyond desperate when he pulled goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky with more than six minutes left in the final game of the hockey season because Bob couldn't help him score the four goals separating his team from the Vegas Golden Knights at the time. At that point it was only 7-3 to the Vegii, so there was no reason not to take Bobrovsky out for an extra attacker in hopes that the building would collapse, or that a last-minute plan to have the equipment guys steal the Stanley Cup and sprint to the airport. Besides, it was completely defensible by the laws of hockey analytics that say to pull the goalie when the only alternative is forfeiting the game. Indeed, it was the move that needed to be made when there were no moves to be made. It was just the almost comedic nature of announcing total surrender in an 11-day battle that ended at the moment of troop deployment.

Frankly, it almost makes you wonder why Maurice didn't do it earlier. Not in that "what he should have done differently" way, either, but more of a Wile E. Coyote "it's the end of the cartoon, so I'd better use the barrels of TNT to try and blow the Roadrunner to bits" kind of thing. It says what we all saw—that eventually a team or any of its constituent players cannot keep punching uphill without their arms eventually refusing to punch any further.

The Vegas story has been told often enough, so it doesn't really bear repeating. The Knights are the most successful team since the New York Rangers of the early 1930s, and that was in an era when the league was barely a quarter its present size and the regular season lasted half as long. They were clearly the best team once the real regular season started in mid-April, and didn't have to do nearly the level of heavy lifting to advance that the Panthers did.

But the persistence that is the essence of the sport only works so much when a team with better and faster players are just as persistent, and truth be told, the Panthers would not have won the series even if Tkachuk's chest had maintained its original condition. This was the just result, lasting the proper number of games.

Still, watching Bobrovsky come off the ice as early as he did had its own pantomimic flair, in a way that Maurice explaining afterward why Tkachuk didn't dress for Game 5 because he physically couldn't dress only reinforced. This was a very one-sided and drama-free final, and Florida's story as the last qualifier that wouldn't give up ... well, at some point they had to give up. They finally ran into the wrong team at the wrong time under the wrong circumstances.

But maybe if Maurice had played the entirety of Game 5 with an empty net ...

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