Six seasons after taking the entire hockey world by surprise, Jonathan Marchessault, William Carrier and their four original teammates – Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb – are back in the Stanley Cup Finals.
After losing it to the Washington Capitals in 2018, having been knocked out of the West Finals race twice – by Dallas in 2020 and the Canadiens in 2021 – the Knights, old and new, consider that their time has come.
“We’ve been around for six years and can’t wait for it to happen,” William Carrier agreed as part of the media day kicking off Stanley Cup Finals activities.
Jonathan Marchessault went further: “What does it give to win to finally lose in the final of the cup”, which the Quebecer decided. This sentence, launched with a stern face, had nothing of a question, but everything of a great affirmation.
“When I think back to the final against the Capitals, I always think about the fact that it was the players of the third and fourth lines of the “Caps” who had hurt us the most. Lars Eller, Chandler Stephenson, Devante Smith-Pelly and their power play had hurt us a lot. When I look at the team we have today, we are much more balanced. Our third and fourth lines are much stronger than those of 2018,” analyzed Marchessault.
Not to mention that Chandler Stephenson is now helping the Knights’ cause instead of haunting them like he did in 2018.
“I was lucky enough to be on the right side of the ice five years ago and I hope to be able to be there again this year,” said the 29-year-old centreman, who posted a disarming calm.
“I started to believe we were winning the cup when ‘Ovie’ — Alexander Ovechkin — was choking me on the bench by pulling on my jersey to jump onto the rink. I was happy for “Ovie” and all the veterans on the team. I was too for me of course and I will be too if I can help the guys who have been waiting for a long time here with the Knights. But to win in the grand final, you have to stay focused. We must remain calm. Avoid getting distracted. It’s by displaying this attitude that I intend to help my team achieve great honours,” explained Stephenson calmly.
The former Capitals, like Alex Pietrangelo with the Blues and Alec Martinez with the Kings have already won the Stanley Cup.
“It’s a very good thing to have the experience of a Stanley Cup. It allows us to share what we have acquired. To be careful not to get too carried away. But at the same time, you have to live in the present moment. Understand the reality of your teammates who want to win it for the first time. In addition, I too want to take all the means to win it another time, ”added Alex Pietrangelo by way of explanation of the form of leadership he tries to exercise within his team.
Kelly McCrimmon was George McPhee’s backup when the Golden Knights took the NHL by surprise in 2017-18.
As president, McPhee is still his boss. But as general manager, McCrimmon made sure to always take steps to improve his team.
“We were in a state of grace in the first season. But we knew that we had to make improvements to our team. We did it all seasons before remaining calmer last summer. We made big decisions over the years to acquire star players like Jack Eichel, Alex Pietrangelo and Mark Stone, but we also solidified the bottom of our formation. It hasn’t always been easy, but if you’re not ready to make tough decisions, you’re not ready to be general manager,” Kelly McCrimmon explained while profiling her team on Friday.
If McCrimmon has been active in his player management, his counterpart Bill Zito, who arrived in Florida at the start of the 2020-2021 season, has been even more so at the head of the Panthers. Only three players – Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Sergei Bobrovsky – completed the 2018-19 season and are still with the Panthers today.
From underdogs to favorites
The presence of the Golden Knights in the grand final was not easy at the start of the season. No more than at the beginning of the present series.
But it is much less surprising than the presence of the Panthers who, a few days before the playoffs, seemed much more about to stick their noses in the door than to enter it. With a 1-3 decline at the expense of the Bruins in the first round, these same Panthers were much closer to the holidays than to a presence in the Grand Finals.
Saturday, against the Knights, they will start the second Stanley Cup final in their history. And unlike their first appearance in 1996 when they were swept in four games by Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche, the Panthers seem able to offer more opposition this year.
Many even consider them favorites to lift the most beautiful trophy in all professional sports.
“The underdog role has served us well since the start of the playoffs. But beyond this title, we have proven to everyone that we are a difficult group of players to face. “Bob” — Sergeï Bovrovsky – was exceptional, we are lucky to be able to count on him, but “Tchucky” — Matthew Tkachuk — “Barky” — Aleksander Barkov – offer great performances and here we are four wins from the goal,” said Nick Cousins.
Nicknames are a big part of the Panthers locker room. A locker room in which good humor leaves no room for pressure.
At least for now…
Cousins also drag a good dozen, according to his own words. “Let’s just say whoever associates my name with that of Wayne Gretzky since I scored the overtime goal that allowed us to eliminate the Leafs in the second round is the one I like the most right now,” launched Cousins laughing.
A support player who has made it to his sixth team in the NHL, Cousins will meet the Golden Knights in the grand final, for which he defended the colors for seven regular season games and 17 additional games in the playoffs. Series that ended at the hands of the Canadian, in 2020, who had sent him to Las Vegas at the trade deadline in return for a fourth-round pick.
Although he only passed through Montreal – nine goals, 22 points in 58 games – Cousins has very fond memories of CH and Claude Julien who managed him at the time.
“When my career is over, I will be able to say that Claude Julien is the head coach who will have had the most positive influence on my career,” said Cousins, surrounded by journalists from Montreal.