Rangers vs. Panthers Eastern Conference Final preview and prediction for 2024 NHL playoffs

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The Rangers’ clash with the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Final features big-name players, big-brain coaches and big-save goalies. The Blueshirts are looking to win their first Stanley Cup since 1994 and the Cats are looking to win their first Cup since, well, ever.

Both teams have the kind of grit and jam that can make for compelling viewing – can’t wait to see Vincent Trocheck chirping at his old team. That was certainly an entertaining element of the Rangers victory over Carolina, another of Trocheck’s former stops, in Round 2.

And the Rangers and Panthers are deep and talented, too. The Rangers have five players with at least 10 points in the playoffs so far, led by Mika Zibanejad (14) and the Panthers have three, topped by Matthew Tkachuk (14). Fourteen Panthers have scored at least one goal and 13 Rangers have done the same.

Are the ascending Rangers ready to win it all in their second trip to the ECF in the last three years? Or are the Panthers, who lost last year’s Stanley Cup Final to the Vegas Golden Knights, prepped to go even further now?

Here’s a look at some of the top talking points of what should be a seven-game doozy…

Squad goals

Which high-powered, goal-scoring force has the bigger series, Artemi Panarin or Sam Reinhart?

Panarin made a conscious effort to shoot more this season and the result was a monster season for the Rangers, including 49 goals. He’s got four game-winners in the playoffs, too, and he could wreck the series if he gets hot. Reinhart, meanwhile, scored 57 times, second in the NHL behind only Toronto’s Auston Matthews, and has five more in the playoffs. He’ll require a lot of Blueshirt attention.

Both teams boast supplemental scoring, too – Chris Kreider may have cemented his lofty Ranger status with a natural hat trick in the clinching comeback against Carolina. Carter Verhaeghe scored 34 for Florida during the season and has six more in the playoffs. He holds the Panther record for playoff goals in a career (21).

Vladimir Tarasenko, a Ranger deadline acquisition last year, could also be an offensive factor for Florida.

The Defense Department

Both teams have been very good at preventing goals, in the regular season and in the cauldron of the playoffs but the Panthers have been better.

During the season, they tied with Winnipeg for the fewest goals allowed, 198, an average of 2.41 per game. In the playoffs, Florida has been basically as good, giving up only 2.45 goals per. The Rangers allowed 2.76 during the year and 2.60 so far in the playoffs.

Florida defenseman Gustav Forsling topped the NHL with a plus-56 rating during the regular season (by comparison, Ryan Lindgren led the Rangers at plus-22). And the Florida blue line is further bolstered by former No. 1 overall pick Aaron Ekblad, a hulking, 6-foot-4 presence, and Brandon Montour. The Panthers also boast Vezina finalist Sergei Bobrovsky (2.37 goals-against average in the playoffs) in net. Bobrovsky didn’t work as hard as Igor Shesterkin (2.40 GAA) did in previous rounds because Florida is only allowing 24.1 shots per game.

Finally, the Panthers also get great defensive work from Aleksander Barkov, who just won his second career Selke Award, given to the best defensive forward in the NHL. Barkov blocked a crucial shot in the clincher against Boston, stopping the puck in front of a gaping net in a vivid example of Florida’s defensive prowess.

Mar 4, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) and Florida Panthers center Sam Reinhart (13) chases the puck in the first period at Madison Square Garden

Hello Nasty

The Panthers have plenty of sandpaper on their roster and their physical style certainly contributed to them leading the NHL in penalty minutes per game – 13.6, according to hockey-reference.com.

Three of their players were in the top 19 in the league in penalty minutes, including star Matthew Tkachuk, an agitator with a flair for getting a reaction from opponents. Florida and the Bruins engaged in a brawl in Game 2 of their series, including fisticuffs between Tkachuk and Boston’s David Pastrnak, and the teams combined for 148 PIM in the game overall.

Wonder if Florida’s rugged nature means Ranger cult hero Matt Rempe will be active for most of the series? Overall, how do the Rangers react to the Cats’ snarl?

Not throwing away their shot(s)

Like Carolina, the Panthers put a lot of shot volume on an opposing goalie – their 33 shots per game are second in the playoffs so far and they were second during the regular season. In six second-round games against the Bruins, Florida outshot Boston, 198-135. And the strategy works for them, too – the Panthers are the third-highest-scoring team in the playoffs at 3.55 goals per game, a smidge better than the Rangers (3.50).

Peter replaced Paul; Paul replaced Peter

This series is a matchup between two of the winningest coaches in NHL history – Panthers boss Paul Maurice is fourth all-time with 869 wins and Rangers coach Peter Laviolette is seventh at 807.

Only Scotty Bowman (2,141) has coached more games than Maurice (1,849). And Maurice and Laviolette are connected by a historical quirk – Laviolette replaced Maurice in Carolina during the 2003-04 season. Then, during the 2008-09 season, Maurice was hired back in Carolina to replace…Laviolette.

In between, however, Laviolette guided the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup in 2006, the first and, so far, only of Laviolette’s career. Maurice is still looking for his first Cup.

Mar 23, 2024; New York, New York, USA; Florida Panthers center Eetu Luostarinen (27) and New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox (23) battle for control of the puck in the third period at Madison Square Garden.

Prediction

Yes, Florida took two out of three from the Rangers during the regular season, but the remarkably resilient Rangers might be entering “their time.”

Their penalty-kill has been smothering (89.5 percent, tops in the playoffs) and their power play has cooked (31.4 percent, third overall) after both units were top-3 during the regular season. Throw in the fact that the Rangers have scored four short-handed goals in the playoffs and it’s clear special teams loom as a difference-maker. And so could Shesterkin, who continues to amaze in goal.

Rangers in seven games

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