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Can the Rangers end the Panthers’ quest to return to the Stanley Cup Final? Breaking down the series


Can the Rangers end the Panthers’ quest to return to the Stanley Cup Final? Breaking down the series

NEW YORK — Asked whether he gave himself much time to bask in his Game 6 heroics against the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider sat at his locker Sunday and mimicked turning the page of a book. He’s moving on, and so are the Rangers. They’re headed to their second conference finals in three years.

The Florida Panthers will head to New York after Tuesday’s practice for Game 1 on Wednesday. Paul Maurice’s club won the Eastern Conference last season, only to fall to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final. Now the Panthers are looking to finish the job.

“They’ve picked up some good confidence and experience in the last year and a half,” Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said. “There’s lots of things they do well. They’ve got a group that’s been around, been there, done that. Confidence, I think, goes with that, too.”

Only 4 points in the standings separated the Rangers and Panthers in the regular season. These are two evenly matched teams complete with superstars, Vezina Trophy-winning goalies and experienced coaches who once upon a time warmed each other’s seats for a while in Carolina.

Maurice was the Hurricanes’ coach when they moved from Hartford and guided the Canes to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings. When Maurice was fired, Laviolette took over, and Maurice left him a note on the whiteboard to let him know he had a “good bunch of guys.” Laviolette coached the Canes to the 2006 Stanley Cup over the Edmonton Oilers, but when he was fired, Maurice took over and Laviolette returned the favor and left him a note on the whiteboard.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov, who is fresh off winning his second career Selke Trophy and has been Florida’s best player in the playoffs. “They won the regular season, and they’ve been playing really well in the playoffs. It is a big challenge for us, but we just need to concentrate on ourselves and do and play our game as good as possible.

“Experience, it helps a lot. Last year was last year, but everyone feels like it was just a few days ago. We remember that really well, but we’re playing against a different team. We haven’t faced them yet (in the playoffs), so the main thing is we need to be excited and enjoy every single second of it, and I’m sure with this group, we can do it.”

The Athletic’s Peter Baugh and Michael Russo look ahead to the matchup, with Baugh focusing on the Rangers and Russo on the Panthers.

What does each team have working in its favor?

Baugh: The Rangers have a winning recipe that’s proved successful all season. They get exceptional goaltending from Igor Shesterkin, have strong special teams units (top three in both in the regular season) and get enough five-on-five production to supplement the power play. That led them to a franchise-record 55-win season, and now they’re off to an 8-2 start in the playoffs. Artemi Panarin had a 120-point regular season and a much-improved postseason from his disappointing 2023 campaign. He has 11 points in 10 games and scored an overtime winner against the Hurricanes.

Carolina tested the Rangers, winning games 4 and 5 and taking a lead into the third period of Game 6, but New York found a way to eke out a series-clinching win. That’s nothing new for the Rangers. They led the NHL with 28 comeback wins this season, which is tied for the third most in league history. The Rangers’ in-game perseverance is hard to quantify statistically, but this group is capable of squeezing out wins, even in games during which it seems to get outplayed or runs into adversity.

Russo: As star-studded as the Rangers are with Panarin, Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and former Panthers center Vincent Trocheck amid an exceptional postseason, the Panthers are loaded with skill on their top two lines.

They also have an inner focus right now that is so different from last year’s just-happy-to-be-there attitude after barely squeaking into the playoffs, ruining the Boston Bruins’ record season in the first round and shocking the league by winning the Eastern Conference.

Vladimir Tarasenko, acquired at the deadline, plays left wing on a line with Barkov, who’s coming off an 80-point season and is one of the league’s most complete players, and Sam Reinhart, a 57-goal scorer who can make an impact anywhere on the ice even if the puck isn’t going in for him.

Carter Verhaeghe, Mr. Clutch, is on the left side of the second line. He is the Panthers’ all-time leading playoff goal scorer with 21 and the franchise leader with nine game winners, five of which have come in overtime. And then there’s Matthew Tkachuk, a Hart Trophy candidate last season who always has a flair for the big moment.

But Barkov, the NHL’s new Patrice Bergeron, is the straw that stirs the drink.

“I don’t really even have words for what he’s doing for our team right now,” Tkachuk said after Friday’s 2-1 series-ending win in Boston. “He’s playing the best hockey in the world right now. He’s the best player in the world right now, both ends of the ice. He’s been unbelievable.”

Among Barkov, Reinhart, Tkachuk, Verhaeghe, Aaron Ekblad and Gustav Forsling — who led the NHL with a plus-56, scored the series clincher against Boston and was by far Florida’s best defenseman in the first two rounds — the Panthers have six skaters with at least a plus-10 net rating, according to The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn’s model.

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Adam Fox wasn’t quite his dominant self against the Hurricanes. (James Guillory / USA Today)

What is one potential weakness for each team?

Baugh: The Rangers’ defensemen provide a reason for some concern. Adam Fox took maintenance days heading into the Carolina series after a knee-to-knee collision with the Washington Capitals’ Nick Jensen, and he wasn’t quite his dominant self against the Hurricanes. He had two assists and a minus-three rating in six games. The Rangers have to hope the few days of rest going into the Panthers series will benefit their top defenseman because they need him playing at a high level against a deep and dangerous Panthers bunch. Ryan Lindgren, Fox’s defensive partner, missed Monday’s practice for maintenance.

Laviolette had Jacob Trouba skating with Erik Gustafsson to start the playoffs, but that pairing struggled against Carolina, so he split them up. Trouba skated with K’Andre Miller in Game 6 against Carolina, and Gustafsson went with Braden Schneider. Those will likely remain the pairs to start the Florida series. The defensive group collectively had moments of sloppiness and irresponsibility against Carolina, and it will need to avoid those as much as possible against an opportunistic Panthers club.

Russo: I’m tempted to go with “What if ‘Playoff Bob’ shows up?” but that’s not fair after he backstopped the Panthers to last year’s Final and has gotten them through two rounds this postseason despite going to long, long … long stretches between shots.

The Panthers have perennially given up a boatload of shots since the early 2000s, but Florida has defended marvelously and limited the action Sergei Bobrovsky has seen. That has led to a sub-.900 save percentage in the first 10 playoff games before he used Game 6 of the Bruins series to climb out of the abyss. But after dealing with Nikita Kucherov and David Pastrnak, the Rangers will present him with his most formidable challenge.

So, biggest weakness? Perhaps the third defense pair of veterans Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Dmitry Kulikov can be exposed against the Rangers, although so far the Panthers’ blue line, including those two, has performed strongly.

Will there be any lineup changes?

Baugh: The Rangers’ six defensemen are set, but there’s once again a question of who the No. 12 forward will be. New York is facing a welcome conundrum: Everyone appears healthy enough to play. That includes Blake Wheeler, who said Sunday that he’s “ready in any capacity,” and Filip Chytil, who played in Game 3 against Carolina and has been skating after a brief illness and experiencing some soreness. Matt Rempe and Jonny Brodzinski, both of whom played in the Carolina series, are also options.

If Laviolette wants upside, he’ll go with Chytil, who had a 22-goal season in 2022-23 before missing most of this season with suspected concussion issues. If Laviolette wants physicality and size, he’ll go with the 6-foot-8 Rempe, who has become a fan favorite despite his limited ice time and lack of polish. If Laviolette wants experience, he’ll go with Wheeler, who has 1,172 career NHL games. And if Laviolette wants someone he knows can provide serviceable depth minutes, he’ll go with Jonny Brodzinski, who played a career-high 57 games this season, more than any of the other options.

Laviolette’s practice and morning skate lines haven’t always been a reliable indicator of what’s to come in games this postseason, but he had Chytil skating on the third line with center Alex Wennberg and right wing Kaapo Kakko at practice Monday. That bumped Will Cuylle to the fourth line with Barclay Goodrow and Jimmy Vesey. Chytil also got reps with the second power-play unit, so he seems to be the most likely of the four possibilities.

Russo: To at least open the series, Maurice isn’t expected to unveil any lineup changes. The big change heading into the series is a flip between second- and third-line centers.

In Game 6 in Boston, where Eetu Luostarinen left the game after being high-sticked by teammate Evan Rodrigues, Maurice went back to an old well and elevated youngster Anton Lundell and placed him between Verhaeghe and Tkachuk. There were three reasons: (1) Lundell has been simply outstanding throughout the playoffs with 9 points in 11 games; (2) it was an attempt to get Verhaeghe and Tkachuk going (each had a quiet series); and (3) for some reason, despite how good Luostarinen, Lundell and Rodrigues have been and can be individually, as a line, they were getting out-chanced, outshot and outscored this postseason.

So Sam Bennett, who returned from a hand injury sustained in the first round in Game 3, was dropped to the third line and, what do ya know, Lundell immediately tied the score in an eventual comeback win.

One thing Maurice can dip into if the Panthers sustain any injuries or an early-series loss is veteran Kyle Okposo and Steven Lorentz waiting in the wings. Both were playing well on the fourth line in the Boston series, but when the Panthers suffered a Game 5 loss, Maurice used that opportunity to get Nick Cousins and Ryan Lomberg back into the lineup. The Panthers won Game 6, and Maurice loved the energy Cousins and Lomberg brought, so naturally, they’ll at least open the Rangers series on the fourth line with Kevin Stenlund.

What’s one storyline that intrigues you?

Baugh: Goaltending was arguably the biggest reason New York beat Carolina in six games. Shesterkin had a .919 save percentage in the second round and put together a massive Game 2, leading the Rangers to a double-overtime win. Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, had an .878 save percentage against New York, and Pyotr Kochetkov had an .880 save percentage in the one game in which he played. If the Hurricanes’ goalies made a couple more timely saves, the series could have gone seven games.

Though he has only a .902 save percentage this postseason, Sergei Bobrovsky is a much more accomplished goaltender than Andersen or Kochetkov. Plus, as Russo mentioned earlier, his lower save percentage can partly be attributed to how few shots the Panthers have allowed. The matchup between him and Shesterkin should be fascinating.

If Bobrovsky can come close to matching his Rangers’ counterpart, the Panthers will be in a good position to have their skater depth take over. But if Shesterkin continues playing at this level and Bobrovsky allows a few soft goals, the Rangers will likely capitalize; they’ve had a knack for timely goals all season.

Both goalies are in the top five in goals saved above expected during the playoffs, according to Evolving-Hockey. Shesterkin is second with 9.09, and Bobrovsky is fifth at 4.38.

Russo: Special teams. The best way for the Panthers to win this series might be to keep it at five-on-five.

That means don’t take any penalties and don’t draw any penalties!

OK, OK, OK, maybe that sounds weird, but didn’t it feel like every time Carolina went on the power play, the Rangers either outscored them or out-chanced them? Same thing with the Capitals.

The Rangers have been that good short-handed, killing off 89.5 percent of opposing power plays and scoring a league-best four short-handed goals.

But the Rangers’ power play is what’s most petrifying if you’re a Panthers fan. The Rangers have the second-best combined special teams in the playoffs (the Oilers entered Monday’s Game 7 with the league’s best power play and penalty killer), converting 31.4 percent of the time on the man advantage.

The Panthers were extremely disciplined against the Bruins, and that must continue if they want to get to the fourth round for the second year in a row.

Who is one skater to watch?

Baugh: Alexis Lafrenière has been a point-per-game player this postseason, all while getting limited power-play time and averaging less total ice time than he did in the regular season. He plays right wing on the Rangers’ most potent offensive line (Panarin-Trocheck-Lafrenière) and showed his ability to create dangerous chances throughout the Carolina series. He had four even-strength goals in those six games. He’s showing more and more why the Rangers took him with the No. 1 pick in 2020.

Kreider had a great answer during the Carolina series when asked about Lafrenière’s excellence.

“Ulf Samuelsson told our team a while ago that you don’t raise your game in the playoffs; you sink to the level of your habits, you lean on your habits,” Kreider said. “And (Lafrenière’s) got unbelievable habits for a young guy. The way he shows up at the rink, the way he works at his craft, just wants to get better, wants to win. Unbelievable player and am just really happy to have him.”

Russo: Tkachuk. He leads the Panthers in scoring with 14 points, yet we’re waiting for that first big Tkachuk moment.

He’s still playing at an elite level, but he set the bar so high last season with 11 goals and 24 points in 20 playoff games. Surprisingly, he has only four goals in 11 playoff games this year, scoring only once against the Bruins and having three pointless games.

Maurice continues to pile on the praise, but you get the sense even he’s starting to get anxious for that first monster Tkachuk performance.

Perhaps playing on Broadway will provide the perfect stage because Tkachuk was downright giddy to get this series started.

“It’s playoff hockey in New York. It’s a dream,” Tkachuk said Friday night. “I mean, MSG, on the road, is my favorite rink to play in just because (of) the history and everything that has to do with the city of New York. It’s a great city. They love their sports. It’s going to be such a great atmosphere.

“I mean, to play a conference finals at MSG, that’s just so cool.”

(Top photo of Jacob Trouba: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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