The conference final round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will feature the four teams that advanced out of the second round in two best-of-7 series. Today, previews the Eastern Conference Final between the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers.

(1M) New York Rangers vs. (1A) Florida Panthers

Rangers: 55-23-4, 114 points; defeated Washington Capitals 4-0 in first round, Carolina Hurricanes 4-2 in second round

Panthers: 52-24-6, 110 points; defeated Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1 in first round, Boston Bruins 4-2 in second round

Season series: NYR 1-2-0, FLA 2-0-1

Game 1: Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN+, ESPN, SN, TVAS, CBC)

Matthew Tkachuk might as well have been speaking for fans of the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers when he was asked about the opportunity to play in the Eastern Conference Final again.

"It's playoff hockey in New York. It's a dream," said Tkachuk, the Panthers forward. "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, conference finals at MSG, that's just so cool. We're excited to start that on Wednesday. Just, hopefully, the hotel doesn't pull the fire alarm on us."

The last part of Tkachuk's quote is referencing what the Panthers dealt with hours before Game 6 against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden on Friday.

No one knows what will happen in New York, but he's certainly right about everything he said about the conference final and the opportunity in front of the Panthers and Rangers, who play Game 1 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.

This is the second time the Rangers and Panthers are meeting in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The first time happened 27 years ago, when New York won the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in five games.

"They've got a very good team," Rangers forward Chris Kreider said. "A lot of strengths. Great offense, great defense, great goaltending, so it's going to be a great challenge for us."

New York is in the conference final for the second time in three seasons and fifth since 2012. It last reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2014.

The Rangers, who won the Presidents' Trophy in the regular season with a team record 114 points, needed 10 games to get here. They swept the Washington Capitals in the first round and won in six against the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round, rallying from down 3-1 in the third period of Game 6 to win 5-3 thanks to Kreider's natural hat trick in a span of 8:58.

Mika Zibanejad (three goals, 11 assists) and Vincent Trocheck (six goals, eight assists) each lead the Rangers with 14 points. Kreider's seven goals are first. Artemi Panarin has 11 points (four goals, seven assists), and Alexis Lafrenière (four goals, six assists) and Kreider (three assists) each have 10.

Igor Shesterkin has been arguably the best goalie in the playoffs, going 8-2 with a 2.40 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.

The Rangers are 31.4 percent on the power play and 89.5 percent on the penalty kill with four short-handed goals.

"Just very, very fast, very talented team, dynamic off the rush," Panthers coach Paul Maurice said of the Rangers. "They've got all the spots. They're the best team in the League. They've got the goaltending, forwards and back end are big and strong and the forwards are very skilled."

Florida is in the conference final for the second straight season. It needed 11 games to get here, defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in five and the Bruins in six.

Tkachuk leads the Panthers with 14 points (four goals, 10 assists). Aleksander Barkov has 13 (five goals, eight assists), Carter Verhaeghe has 11 (six goals, five assists) and Sam Reinhart has nine (five goals, four assists). Reinhart scored 57 goals in the regular season.

Sergei Bobrovsky is 8-3 with a 2.37 GAA and .902 save percentage.

The Panthers swept the Hurricanes in the conference final last season before a five-game loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final.

"I think they've picked up some good confidence and experience in the last year and a half between making that run in the playoffs, getting in the playoffs, making that run to the Final," Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said. "Certainly, the year that they have winning their division, a tough division, there's lots of things that they do well. They've got a group that's been around and been there done and I think confidence goes with that too. They're big, they're strong, they're physical.

"But I mean, Carolina was a lot like that as well. They play a fast physical, aggressive game. They're a little bit different in the way that they both play the game, but there are some similarities."

Game breakers

Rangers: Kreider put the Rangers into the conference final with his natural hat trick in Game 6 against the Hurricanes. He has seven goals in the playoffs after scoring 39 in the regular season. Kreider is fast with a powerful first two strides to get him going, but his ability to get his stick on pucks in front of the net is the thing he does better than arguably everybody else in the NHL. Those three goals in Game 6 in Carolina came from a combined 18 feet away from the net. That is what makes him so dangerous and the player who can turn a game in the Rangers' favor. So too is his ability to get free for short-handed 2-on-1 opportunities with Zibanejad. He already has two short-handed points in the playoffs, a game-tying goal in Game 3 against the Hurricanes and an assist on defenseman K'Andre Miller's game-winning goal in Game 2 against the Capitals.

Panthers: Reinhart is similar to Kreider in that he scores a lot of his goals from in front of the net. Three of his five playoff goals have come from 13 feet and in from the net. Reinhart also has been relatively quiet through two rounds considering the standard he set for himself in the regular season with his 57 goals. He could be due for a breakout, which would be huge for the Panthers, especially if it comes on the power play. He led the NHL with 27 goals on the man-advantage in the regular season but has just one in 11 playoff games. He is shooting 10.4 percent in the playoffs after shooting 24.5 percent in the regular season. That's another sign that a breakout could be coming for him against the Rangers.


Rangers: Shesterkin faced a barrage of shots in six games against the Hurricanes, an average of 37.2 per game, and still had a 2.80 GAA and .919 save percentage, allowing 18 goals on 223 shots. He made timely saves on point-blank opportunities in the third period of Game 6 to allow the Rangers to rally. Shesterkin allowed seven goals on 101 shots in the four games against Washington for a 1.75 GAA and .931 save percentage. He's been excellent on the penalty kill, allowing only four goals on 41 shots (.902 save percentage). His play in the postseason is a continuation of his strong second half of the regular season. Shesterkin went 17-5-1 with a 2.20 GAA, .930 save percentage and four shutouts in 23 games from Feb. 9 through the end of the season. In 38 NHL playoff games, all starts, Shesterkin has 21 wins with a 2.43 GAA and .927 save percentage.

Panthers: Bobrovsky has allowed two goals or fewer in eight of 11 playoff games, including five in a row and six of the past seven. His one blip in the past seven games was Game 1 against the Bruins, when he allowed four goals on 28 shots in a 5-1 loss. He had a 2.03 GAA and .907 save percentage against the Bruins with 12 goals against and made 22 saves in a 2-1 series-clinching win in Game 6 on Friday. He was 36-17-4 with a 2.37 GAA, .915 save percentage and six shutouts in the regular season. Against the Rangers, Bobrovsky was 2-0-1 with a 2.59 GAA and .919 save percentage. He leads the NHL with 24 playoff wins since 2022, three more than Shesterkin, going 24-15 with a 2.65 GAA, .911 save percentage and one shutout in 40 games (39 starts).

Numbers to know

Rangers: The Rangers have a plus-9 goal differential (35-26) in the playoffs despite a minus-6.4 shot differential. They're allowing 32.5 shots on goal per game and getting 26.1. They're even in goal differential on the penalty kill with four short-handed goals and four power-play goals against. Their goal distribution per period is even with 11 in each and two in overtime. They are 2-0 in overtime games. Their plus-9 goal differential has all come after the first period (24-15). The Rangers have five comeback wins in the playoffs after leading the NHL with 28 in the regular season. They're 3-1 when trailing after the first and 2-1 when trailing after the second.

Panthers: Florida has a plus-8.9 differential in shots on goal (33.0-24.1) in the playoffs. Only the Hurricanes were better through two rounds (plus-9.1, 35.7-26.6). The Panthers are 7-0 when leading or tied after the second period. They have gotten 25 points (seven goals, 18 assists) in 11 games from defensemen, nine more than the Rangers have at the position (two goals, 14 assists) in 10 games. Brandon Montour is first with eight points (three goals, five assists), followed by Gustav Forsling's seven (two goals, five assists). Florida has used the same six defensemen in all 11 playoff games: Montour, Forsling, Aaron Ekblad, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dmitry Kulikov and Niko Mikkola). Florida was 15-for-16 with a short-handed goal on the penalty kill against the Bruins.

NHL Tonight previews the Eastern Conference Final


Rangers: Defenseman Jacob Trouba could play a pivotal role against Florida. The Rangers captain's physicality, if disciplined, can help them contain Panthers forwards like Tkachuk and Sam Bennett, and any offense he chips in (four points in 10 playoff games) would go a long way in helping to match Florida's superior scoring defense. Trouba has sneaky offensive upside considering he's had two seasons of double-digit goals in past regular seasons (11 in 2021-22, 10 in 2013-14) and an NHL career-high 50 points with the Winnipeg Jets in 2018-19. Trouba had one power-play assist, six hits and nine blocked shots in two regular-season games against the Panthers. -- Pete Jensen

Panthers: Forward Vladimir Tarasenko, acquired by the Panthers from the Ottawa Senators before the 2024 NHL Trade Deadline, played for the Rangers last season and had 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists) in the regular season and playoffs combined (38 games). The Rangers did not re-sign Tarasenko last offseason, so he could have extra motivation against his former team. Tarasensko had his eighth 20-goal season (23) and eighth 50-point season (55) in the NHL. He has been quiet in the postseason (two goals, five points in 11 games) but could give the Panthers a huge boost if his goal scoring ignites in this series. He had three points (two goals, one assist) and eight shots on goal in three games against the Rangers this season. -- Pete Jensen

They said it

"They've been a top team in the League and played for the Cup last year and finished first in their division. They bring speed, size, skill, physicality. There's some similarities to Carolina and the way that they play, an aggressive mindset, so some of that will be similar, I think in preparation, but they're also a little bit different so we're just getting into it now and just starting to get it to the guys and prepare them." -- Rangers coach Peter Laviolette

"They're the best team in the regular season. They have a lot of good offensive players and they have a deep lineup, so it's going to be a big challenge for us, but I think we're ready for that. We just need to concentrate on ourselves and play our game as good as possible." -- Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov

Will win if ...

Rangers: Once again, the Rangers need their special teams to be dominant and Shesterkin to be the better goalie in the series. That they were able to dominate the Hurricanes on special teams should give them confidence to do the same against the Panthers. Carolina had the top-ranked penalty kill (86.4 percent) and second-ranked power play (26.9 percent) in the regular season. New York still outscored it 7-2 on special teams, with five power-play goals and two short-handed. The Rangers were minus-1 at 5-on-5, getting outscored 13-12. That's not an issue if they can win the special teams game. They can't expect to generate a lot of shot volume against the Panthers, who are allowing 24.1 shots on goal per game in the playoffs, but they didn't generate a lot of shot volume against the Hurricanes either (26.2 per game). They'll need to make the most of their chances, which they have done during the postseason.

Panthers: It goes without saying that Bobrovsky must be good for the Panthers to win the series, but can he be better than Shesterkin? That's the question. And that's the challenge. The Panthers need Bobrovsky to be better to win the series. Good might not be good enough. Florida will need to both control the 5-on-5 play and keep New York's power play in check. The Rangers won the series against the Hurricanes with their special teams. The Panthers have to do their best to be even in that department. A breakout for Reinhart will also go a long way too.

How they look

Rangers projected lineup

Chris Kreider -- Mika Zibanejad -- Jack Roslovic

Artemi Panarin -- Vincent Trocheck -- Alexis Lafreniere

Filip Chytil -- Alex Wennberg -- Kaapo Kakko

Will Cuylle -- Barclay Goodrow -- Jimmy Vesey

Ryan Lindgren -- Adam Fox

K'Andre Miller -- Jacob Trouba

Erik Gustafsson -- Braden Schneider

Igor Shesterkin

Jonathan Quick

Scratched: Zac Jones, Chad Ruhwedel, Jonny Brodzinski, Adam Edstrom, Matt Rempe, Blake Wheeler

Injured: None

Panthers projected lineup

Vladimir Tarasenko -- Aleksander Barkov -- Sam Reinhart

Carter Verhaeghe -- Anton Lundell -- Matthew Tkachuk

Eetu Luostarinen -- Sam Bennett -- Evan Rodrigues

Ryan Lomberg -- Kevin Stenlund -- Nick Cousins

Gustav Forsling -- Aaron Ekblad

Niko Mikkola -- Brandon Montour

Oliver Ekman-Larsson -- Dmitry Kulikov

Sergei Bobrovsky

Anthony Stolarz

Scratched: Steven Lorentz, Kyle Okposo, Tobias Bjornfot, Uvis Balinskis, Josh Mahura, Jonah Gadjovich, Spencer Knight, Rasmus Asplund, Mike Benning, Magnus Hellberg, Matt Kiersted, William Lockwood, Mackie Samoskevich, Justin Sourdif

Injured: None staff writer Tom Gulitti contributed to this report

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