NYR FLA East Final roundtable Tonight bug

The Eastern Conference Final between the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers is a battle with each team feeling destined to win it all.

The Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy as the best team in the NHL this season and are back in the conference final for the second time in three seasons. In 2022 they took a 2-0 lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but lost the next four games. After going out in the first round last season, they have backed up their regular-season record by sweeping the Washington Capitals and then defeating the Carolina Hurricanes, who had the second-best record in the conference, in six games.

The Florida Panthers shocked the hockey world last season when they reached the Cup Final after making the playoffs as the final wild card. After falling behind 3-1 to the Boston Bruins in the first round, they went on an 11-1 run to get to the Cup Final before falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games.

They believe they have unfinished business this year, defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games in the first round and then topping the Bruins in six in the second round.

But though each team looks strong entering Game 1 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN, ESPN+, SN, TVAS, CBC), only one can win. So who will it be?

We asked six NHL.com editors and writers who have covered the Rangers and the Panthers in the postseason that very question.

Here are their responses:

Amalie Benjamin, staff writer

I’m taking the New York Rangers. I’ve just spent six games watching the Florida Panthers play against a very flawed Boston Bruins team, in a series that went six games, and I think the Rangers are a vastly better team. It starts with Igor Shesterkin. A great goalie -- and Shesterkin is that -- can stifle the Panthers’ offense, as we saw with Jeremy Swayman in the second round. Shesterkin shut the door on the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 6 and seems battle-tested and ready to take a team to the Stanley Cup Final. But that’s not all the Rangers have. Shesterkin is backed up by a significantly more skilled offense, with forwards Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider and centers Mika Zibanejad and Vincent Trocheck, to name a few. Because of that, New York can take advantage of the Florida's flaws, something Boston was not able to exploit. It should be a fantastic series, but I think the Rangers advance.

Tom Gulitti, staff writer

This is going to be a tight series, but I’m going to pick the Panthers. When I look at them, I see a team that’s very determined to finish the job it didn’t get to complete last season, when it lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final. That team was beat up with injuries to key players such as forward Matthew Tkachuk and defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour by the time it got to the Final and had very little left physically. This one is healthier now and deeper after adding some key players in the offseason, including defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niko Mikkola and Dmitry Kulikov, and during the season, such as forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Kyle Okposo. The team that loses in the Cup Final often has a harder time the following season than the Cup champion because of the disappointment from going so far and losing, but led by its captain, Aleksander Barkov, Florida showed no signs of that and has been driven to take the next step. In a series between two deep, balanced lineups, I think that will make the difference in the end for the Panthers.

Bill Price, Editor-in-Chief

Before the season began, I picked the Rangers to win the Stanley Cup, so I have to stick with them now. But this series is going to be epic. As Tom points out, the Panthers are on a mission. I saw that firsthand when I covered their first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. They looked unbeatable. In fact, I didn’t think Boston would have a chance against them. But as Amalie points out, the Bruins gave them quite a fight, and who knows how that series turns out if forward Brad Marchand doesn’t miss two games. As much as Florida is on a mission, New York feels like a team of destiny, a feeling that was reinforced in the third period of Game 6 against Carolina. Would I be surprised if the Panthers won the series? No. But I think the Rangers have the more consistent goalie in Shesterkin, have veterans up and down the lineup who have been here before as well, and a team that also has unfinished business from two seasons ago, when it lost in the Eastern Conference Final. This one goes seven games, and it’s the Rangers winning it.

Shawn P. Roarke, senior director of editorial 

If the Hurricanes got clutch goaltending and figured out their special teams earlier, we would be talking about a Hurricanes-Panthers series. Carolina won the 5-on-5 portion of the series against New York handily -- which has been a bugaboo for the Rangers all season -- and had a lead in five of the six games. You know who makes key saves? Sergei Bobrovsky of Florida, that’s who. And the special teams battle likely won’t be as lopsided; the Panthers are converting on 22 percent of their power plays and are 86.1 percent on the penalty kill. I covered New York for the past six games and a couple of things concern me. Before Kreider took over the third period of Game 6, the Rangers were staggering like a heavyweight boxer deep in the championship rounds. Though six days off will help New York get its legs back, Florida is an absolute buzzsaw on the forecheck. This will be a mosh pit on skates. That’s not the Rangers' game. Also, Shesterkin is a great goalie, but he gave up 11 goals in the final three games against an offense that is not as dynamic as the one the Panthers possess. It’s going to be a long and interesting series, but Florida is going back to the Final.

Dan Rosen, senior writer

For me, this comes down to the "it" factor. Whatever "it" is, the Rangers have it and that’s why I am picking them. The Panthers did last season. They found a way past the Bruins, Maple Leafs and Hurricanes, winning four straight games by one goal in the conference final against Carolina before just running out of steam and into a moving freight train in the Golden Knights. This year, it’s the Rangers. They just somehow always seem to find a way. They did in the regular season with their 28 comeback wins to lead the NHL. They already have five comeback wins in the playoffs, including a 2-1 record when trailing after two periods. There isn’t a bigger "it" moment for New York than the third period of Game 6 against Carolina. Down 3-1 and getting outplayed through 40 minutes, the Rangers still found a way. Kreider scored the natural hat trick. Shesterkin made some dazzling timely saves. And they got lucky with forward Jake Guentzel hitting the post and forward Jordan Martinook hitting the crossbar. All season it just felt like New York had a mojo that couldn't be stopped. The metrics could go against it in this series too, just like against Carolina, but it won’t matter. There is something special going on with the Rangers and it will continue. They won the Stanley Cup in 1994. They got to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. It’s 2024. Maybe there’s just something for this franchise when the year ends in a four.

David Satriano, staff writer

After the Rangers steamrolled through the Capitals in the first round and had a 3-0 series lead on the Hurricanes in the second round, they hit a little bump, losing two games and almost three before Kreider's heroics had people saying they're a team of destiny. But that’s a title that should be reserved for the Panthers. Florida was not expected to make the playoffs last year and then won a round, and advanced all the way to the Cup Final before their time ran out against the Golden Knights. Well, this season they surprised many by being one of the best teams in the League, and are right back in the Eastern Conference Final. The goalie edge likely goes to the Rangers, although Bobrovsky is no slouch. But when you go beyond that, the Panthers have more depth at forward and defense. New York has not trailed in a series in these playoffs, but I think Tkachuk and Co. end that streak and set the tone for the series with a win in Game 1.

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