Eastern Conference Final Preview: Rangers vs. Panthers

Florida Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov joins Sportsnet's Kyle Bukauskas to discuss eliminating the Boston Bruins for the second consecutive year, the 'mutual respect' between the two teams, and his hand after blocking a shot in the dying minutes.

The Eastern Conference Final is set, and it’s a battle between the league’s top team in the regular season, the New York Rangers, and the Atlantic Division’s No. 1 seed, the Florida Panthers.

The action gets started in New York with Game 1 at the famed Madison Square Garden on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. (Sportsnet and CBC).

The Rangers were the first team to qualify for the playoffs, and the Presidents’ Trophy winners got off to an incredible start this post-season, rattling off seven straight wins, starting with a sweep of the Capitals before closing out Carolina in six.

This will be New York’s second trip to the Eastern Conference Final in three seasons, while the Panthers have punched their ticket there for the second straight year.

Florida took out Tampa Bay in five games in the first round before closing out Boston in six.

Head-to-head record regular season:

Rangers: 1-2-0
Panthers: 2-0-1

New York’s Unsung Hero: Slow growth over his first three seasons led some to question if “bust” would become a description of Alexis Lafreniere, the No. 1 draft pick of four years ago, but the winger has been busting open that plot this post-season, proving himself to be a clutch playoff performer.

Lafreniere leads the Rangers in 5-on-5 points with seven, and he and Chris Kreider are tied with a team-leading four goals at even strength. Lafreniere is rolling at a point-per-game pace in the playoffs, with 10 in 10. That’s a significant uptick from zero points in seven games a year ago in the post-season, and nine points in 20 games in the 2021-22 campaign that saw the Rangers lose to Tampa in the conference finals.

This is a different Lafreniere we’re seeing. The 22-year-old is coming off a career-high 57 point regular season, including 28 goals, nine more than his previous best.

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Florida’s Unsung Hero: Yes, he scored the series clincher on Friday night with 1:33 remaining to give the Panthers a 2-1 win, but so much of Gustav Forsling’s value comes on the defensive end of the puck, so the defender doesn’t always get the shine he’s due.

Forsling was claimed off waivers by the Panthers ahead of the 2020-21 season, and he’s been a lineup regular ever since. Back in March the 27-year-old signed an eight-year extension with the team.

The Swede has a team-best plus-eight rating, and only Brandon Montour averages more ice time per game for the Panthers in the post-season than Forsling’s 22:30.

As head coach Paul Maurice recently told reporters: “There are different styles of defencemen, but in his style, he’s the best in the world.”

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Playoff 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick

New York Will Win If…

For starters, goaltender Igor Shesterkin keeps up his sparkling play. Shesterkin has been the difference for New York in a lot of tight games, and comes into the third round with a 2.40 GAA and a .923 save percentage, which is tops among remaining netminders.

Similarly, the Rangers need to keep up their dazzling special teams play: their 89.5 per cent success rate on the penalty kill leads the league, and they have an impressive 31.4 per cent success rate with the man advantage. Their power play unit will have to shine against Florida’s stellar PK.

New York is led in points by Vincent Trocheck and Mika Zibanejad (14 apiece), and could use a boost in production from their leading scorer in the regular season, Artemi Panarin. The winger has 11 points in 10 games this post-season, which is nothing to be too upset about given the depth on this team, but it’s a drop from Panarin’s regular season production that saw him put up 120 points (49 goals, 71 assists).

Florida Will Win if….

Sergei Bobrovsky can heat up a little bit: His .902 save percentage in these playoffs is just shy of the .915 he posted en route to the Stanley Cup Final last year.

The Panthers will have to rely on their penalty killing unit — their 86.1 per cent success rate is third-best this post-season — to shut down New York’s power play. Florida will also have to be wary of the Rangers earning chances while a man down: No team has scored more on the PK than New York’s four goals in 10 games.

Offensively, Florida’s leaders are Matthew Tkachuk (14 points) and Aleksander Barkov (13 points) and they’ll have to work to find ways to get pucks past Shesterkin. The Panthers are led in goals by winger Carter Verhaeghe, who has six in 11 games and is producing at a point-per-game pace. Sam Reinhart, who led the Panthers in the regular season with 57 goals, has five in the post-season.  

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