The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2023-24 season by former NHL coaches and assistants who turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher.

In this edition, Davis Payne, former coach of the St. Louis Blues and assistant with the Los Angeles Kings, Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators, breaks down the Eastern Conference Final between the New York Rangers and the Florida Panthers and looks ahead to Game 4 at Florida on Tuesday.

The Eastern Conference Final between the New York Rangers and the Florida Panthers has been a tight, hard-fought series so far. New York leads the best of-7 series 2-1 with Game 4 coming up at Florida on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ESPN, SN, TVAS, CBC). 

After Florida won 3-0 in Game 1 and physically sort of shoved New York onto its heels, the Rangers responded in a 2-1 overtime win in Game 2 with more physical play from everybody, not just their physical players. 

Then, the Rangers found a way to win 5-4 in overtime in Game 3 on Sunday, despite being outshot 37-23 and the Panthers having a 108-43 advantage in shot attempts. I think if you break it down just based on shot volume and zone time and shot attempts, you would say that Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin  was the star of the game.

That’s certainly a way to win a game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but over time that volume is something that New York has got to be aware of.

If you look at Florida’s team, you get hit every time you touch the puck. I think it took New York a little bit of time to get comfortable with that -- one game, maybe one-plus. In Game 3, I thought New York matched that physicality for the first 25-30 minutes, but the playoffs often are a lot about how long you can stay with your game.

Getting comfortable knowing that Florida’s not backing off is something New York is going to have to be prepared for because Game 4 is going to be every bit of that and then some. 

That being said, the Rangers have done a good job of possessing the puck and taking the plays and making the plays that are available to them. It’s not like they’re hanging their goaltender out to dry or giving up crazy A-plus chances. It’s just a matter of is volume going to beat you versus the precision or are you going to be able to sort of even that up?

The Panthers are one of the best forechecking teams in the League. It’s their M.O. They don’t want to mess around in the neutral zone. They just want to get it behind you and start banging and going to work. 

New York would rather possess the puck, and that’s fine. It’s sort of what you’re built towards, but as series move along, that wear and tear from being forechecked really starts to add up. 

That was our M.O. with the Los Angeles Kings when we won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014. We knew that if we didn’t get you in Games 1-4, we’re going to get you in Games 5-7 because you’re not going to withstand that physical pounding time after time after time.

Once the territory gets evened out, then it becomes which player makes the right, hard play. You can see some of the depth on the Rangers has stepped up beyond the depth of the Panthers with Barclay Goodrow and Alex Wennberg scoring big goals. That’s probably why the Rangers lead the series.

FLA@NYR ECF, Gm2: Goodrow fires it in for Rangers overtime win

The top players have essentially sawn each other off until you get to the power play, but there’s a reason why a guy like Goodrow, who has scored three goals in the past two games, shines at this time of the year. This is the hockey he plays all the time, so it’s not abnormal for him to go into hard areas and be amongst the turbulence in finding plays and finishing plays.

The Panthers need a little more of that in their play in Game 4. Although their shot volume has been there, I don’t know if they’ve had enough people in and around the goaltender.

It’s one thing to be having those shots and creating a screen or a rebound, but if you don’t have extra bodies going there, Shesterkin is a very good goaltender. We all know traffic makes every goaltender a little bit less good, as well as getting to rebounds. Florida needs to make it about that area of the ice a little bit more.

One thing I thought the Rangers did a very good job of was creating the turnover and then the turnover went right to the net. The Panthers are very aggressive in everything they do. They’re very aggressive in the way they check. There are tight gaps everywhere. No Rangers player gets to skate three strides without getting a stick or a body in his face.

What the Panthers need to tighten up is making sure they keep the Rangers players in front of them. The Rangers got people behind them two or three times in Game 3.

On the winning goal, the Panthers were looking to apply checking pressure and clamp down in their own zone and, the next thing you know, the puck squirts out and Wennberg is on the wrong side of people.

NYR@FLA ECF, Gm3: Wennberg deflects a shot in front to win it in overtime

I think if the Panthers maintain their game plan and make all the reads about keeping people in front of them, with their volume of shots and an added intent to get more people in and around the net, that formula has the potential to work with a very limited amount of tweaking.

From the Rangers’ perspective, I think they need to make sure the game goes 200 feet both ways. They’re looking to possess the puck in the neutral zone and if they turn it over at the top of the circles, then the Panthers only need to come 170 feet. They don’t have to go back and break out and you don’t have any extra ice to get on top of people.

I thought there were a number of times where instead of possessing the puck, the Rangers could have been committed to forecheck some deep pucks to force the Panthers to go the length of the ice. Looking at it in football terms, it’s really about on fourth down, how do you make sure your punter puts the ball in a good area? Whether it’s for a fair catch or you tackle the guy down in deep, you need to force them to go the whole field. 

I don’t feel like New York has done enough of that. Should the Rangers continue to meet that physical pressure man-on-man, nose-to-nose, and make sure that the puck does go 200 feet, I think they have a little more efficiency in terms of skill and finishing ability. They might get a few more opportunities by making the Panthers go 200 feet and at least they’ll prevent them from getting the shot volume they’re seeking.

Now that the Rangers have jumped ahead in this series, I think it’s going to go the distance. That would be great for all of us because this is wonderful hockey to watch.

Florida and New York have established a physical play, but there’s also some nastiness to it, and in my opinion, this is what you’ve got to go through to win the Stanley Cup.