The Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers could be on a collision course to meet in the Eastern Conference Final again.

Of course, other teams in the East will have a say in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But the Hurricanes and Panthers tried to give themselves the best chance to get back to the conference final and beyond by being among the most aggressive teams before the 2024 NHL Trade Deadline on Friday.

Pushing to take the next step after losing to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final last season, the Panthers acquired one of the best rental players available in forward Vladimir Tarasenko in a trade with the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday, and added to their forward depth and experience by acquiring Buffalo Sabres captain Kyle Okposo on Friday.

The Hurricanes landed the premier goal-scorer available, forward Jake Guentzel, in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday. Carolina also acquired forward Evgeny Kuznetsov from the Washington Capitals on Friday.

“Now we’ve got to go win hockey games,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said.

The Panthers and Hurricanes have done a lot of that already this season. Florida (43-17-4) leads the NHL with 90 points, one ahead of the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins. Carolina (37-19-6) is second in the Metropolitan Division with 80 points, four points behind the New York Rangers and six ahead of the third-place Philadelphia Flyers.

But each team felt they needed more for the playoffs. Florida is seeking its first championship after reaching the Cup Final last season for the second time in its history and first time since 1996. Carolina hasn’t been back to the Cup Final since winning its first championship in 2006.

Both teams feel like they are knocking on the door and wanted to give their players their best chance to break through it.

“I think they know that we’re going to do everything we can to help them do their thing,” Panthers general manager Bill Zito said. “It’s their thing. People pay to see them. It’s their team. It’s their success. But to the extent that we can help, I think the guys appreciate it and they know that we’re all in it with them.”

The Panthers acquire Tarasenko from the Senators

Carolina has not forgotten being swept by Florida in four one-goal losses in the conference final last season. Guentzel could provide that one more goal it was missing.

Guentzel, who is close to returning from an oblique injury that has sidelined him since Feb. 14, has 52 points (22 goals, 30 assists) in 50 games this season. A 2017 Stanley Cup winner and proven playoff producer, the 29-year-old has scored 34 goals in 58 NHL postseason games.

Though Guentzel is a pending unrestricted free agent, the Hurricanes thought it was well worth going against their preference for not acquiring rental players in deadline deals.

The cost was forward Michael Bunting, forward prospects Vasily Ponomarev and Ville Koivunen, the rights to forward Cruz Lucius, a conditional first-round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft, and a conditional fifth-round pick in the 2024 draft. The Penguins will also retain 25 percent of Guentzel’s salary.

“We knew we needed goal-scoring,” Waddell said. “Guentzel was the premier goal-scorer on the market, in our opinion, and the price was right.”

Kuznetsov, who is expected to make his Hurricanes debut at the New Jersey Devils on Saturday (12:30 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+), is more of a wild card after returning from his second stint in the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program, which he entered Feb. 5. When at his best during the 2018 playoffs, he led the League with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) in 24 games to help Washington win the Stanley Cup.

But the 31-year-old has been inconsistent since then, and has 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) in 43 games this season. If he can get close to returning to his finest form, the Hurricanes will have added another elite offensive player at a bargain: a third-round pick in the 2025 NHL Draft with the Capitals retaining 50 percent of the remaining salary on his contract, which has another season left on it.

“We think with the players we’re going to surround him with," Waddell said, the coaches that we have here surrounding him, it’s just not only a great culture but a great environment that if anybody is going to have a chance to get him back to where he was -- I mean, his playoff numbers have been outstanding – then we felt very comfortable that we could be the team to do that.”

Florida added a more proven commodity in Tarasenko, a pending unrestricted free agent, for a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft and a third-round choice in the 2025 draft with Ottawa retaining 50 percent of his remaining salary. A Stanley Cup winner with the St. Louis Blues, Tarasenko has 44 goals in 97 playoff games. The 32-year-old has 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists) in 58 games this season.

Okposo, also a pending unrestricted free agent, has 22 points (12 goals, 10 assists) in 61 games this season. The Panthers gave up defenseman Calle Sjalin and either a seventh-round pick in the 2024 draft or a fifth-round pick in 2024 (if they win the Cup) for the 35-year-old, who is hungry to play in the playoffs for the first time since 2016 with the New York Islanders.

“What we wanted to do was supplement and add to the top six, top nine,” Zito said. “And I think ‘Vladdy’ does that, and that’s a pretty easy one. He has a lot of flexibility and utility with who he can play with and how. … With Kyle, we added depth. We added flexibility in our depth as well. He can move around the lineup and bump in and out, and we added leadership, guidance, experience.”

There are no guarantees in the playoffs. The Panthers were the best example of that last season when they upset the Bruins, the NHL’s first-place team in the regular season, in the Eastern Conference First Round.

But neither the Panthers nor the Hurricanes will wonder if there was more they could’ve done before the deadline to help their postseason chances.

“Now it’s up to us on the ice to continue to progress,” Waddell said. “The best thing that we can do is win hockey games.”

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