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Vegas Will Tolerate No Rats In The Cup

Linesman Jonny Murray separates Nicolas Hague #14 of the Vegas Golden Knights and Matthew Tkachuk #19 of the Florida Panthers during a fight
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Vegas-Florida Stanley Cup Final was bereft of the two factors that make for easy narratives: history and geography. These teams had played only ten games, total, against each other before Saturday night. They'd each only ever made it to one Final before, both in losing efforts. And though I've never been to either city, I don't imagine Vegas and Miami spend much time sneering in the other's direction, and won't until there's maybe an international strobe light shortage.

But you can define each of these relative newcomers to the late stages of the playoffs by the contrast between the plastic animals their fans throw on the ice. In Vegas, it's flamingos, which primarily recalls a casino whose entertainment history dates all the way back to Judy Garland. In Florida, they throw rats, a throwback to Scott Mellanby killing a rat in their locker room before the first home game of the franchise's best season to date.

And if the Golden Knights' Game 1 win is any indication, this will in fact be a Stanley Cup between polished showbiz professionals and the rats that peek their heads out from under the stage after everyone goes home. The Knights, before the puck even dropped, showed what they were all about with a memorably kitschy pregame that pitted a Knight against ... not a Panther, actually, but an evil man.

Florida's arena won't get a chance to deliver a live spectacle until Game 3—for my money it should just be one single rat released on the ice—but their boys demonstrated that they knew how to handle a hostile crowd in the early going of the first period.

It's wild watching this eight-seed playoff team ride the streak they're on while still holding memories of last year's Presidents' Trophy winners. Andrew Brunette's 2021-22 squad, with its shaky goaltending and its cocaine offense, won by hastily tossing buckets of water off the boat as they became veterans of the multi-goal comeback. The defensive deficiencies were too much to make up for with Paul Maurice behind the bench in 2022-23, but now that Sergei Bobrovsky has finally been rock-solid in net, and King Rat Matthew Tkachuk has taken over leadership of this team, the Panthers are a confident, edgy group that looks to unnerve their opposition at all times. For one example of their quirky self-assured grittiness, here's how Marc Staal described their latest postgame locker room tradition:

“It's not a dog bone. It’s a t-bone. Long story short, one of our trainers ate this massive piece of steak, and it had a bone in it. He finished the whole thing and he was hurting afterward. We just took the bone and now it's for hard work—the best player, like, someone who's grinding. Because he was grinding eating that piece of meat. Now it’s ‘the bone.’

“All I know is it’s in someone’s hand after a win. You have to chew on it.”

When his interviewer said "I understand that it's sanitized and done appropriately," Staal replied, "I have no idea."

They're gnawing on a shared bone after games and yapping in their rivals' faces beforehand. Yes, they have that dog, and this encroachment on the crease that led to a Nick Cousins roughing minor set the tone early in Game 1.

And instead of glumly serving the punishment for the penalty, the Panthers played aggressively on the kill, created a turnover, and quieted the crowd with a wraparound goal for 38-year-old Eric Staal, who's 16th among Florida skaters in ice time this postseason.

Vegas, however, is a team that looks comfortable in any situation, and they're especially fine when they're only down 1-0 at home. Jonathan Marchessault, who's played a successful residency here from the very beginning, finished a one-timer after being allowed prime real estate in the slot to tie the game before intermission. And then Adin Hill, the newcomer goalie who Cousins had tried to unnerve, opened the second period with this show-stopping stretched-out save on that same antagonist.

From there Vegas got a nice run of chances that paid off with a goal through traffic scored by Shea Theodore, and they contained the Panthers for a while after that. But momentum swung back Florida's way with another unexpected goal just 11 seconds before the end of the period. This time, it was Anthony Duclair whose immediate shot from an offensive zone faceoff win knotted the score.

Again, though, Vegas wouldn't be cowed. A burst of offense seven minutes into the third gave Zach Whitecloud the eventual game-winning goal. For some insurance, one of Vegas's priciest imports, Mark Stone, brilliantly denied a Florida clear and beat Bobrovsky top right.

An empty-netter made the final 5-2, but before that could happen, the Panthers tried to get some last licks in. In a sequence that handed misconducts to Tkachuk, Sam Bennett, and Vegas's Chandler Stephenson, the Florida men persistently attempted to give the Knights a taste of their gloves.

“It’s exactly what we expected," Shea Theodore said afterward. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

Now that the dust has cleared and the teams have some newfound familiarity to breed contempt, the intrigue of Game 2 revolves around one question: How nasty is it gonna be? Will the Panthers blink first, toning down or at least smartening up their under-the-skin style in an effort to close the gap on power plays? Or will Vegas hit a point where they lose their cool and charge at the big red towel Tkachuk keeps holding in front of their faces? There's no evidence yet that the Knights are set to lose their minds, but anyone who's ever had a rat problem knows that it doesn't get solved in one night.

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