Rangers vs. Panthers X-factors for Eastern Conference Final playoff series

NHL: New York Rangers at Detroit Red Wings
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

You want star power in the Eastern Conference Final? Then you’ll enjoy this best-of-7 series that features Vezina Trophy winners Igor Shesterkin and Sergei Bobrovsky in goal. Artemi Panarin and his 120 points against Selke Award winner Aleksander Barkov. Former Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox among those trying to slow down 57-goal scorer Sam Reinhart. And that’s without even mentioning Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Vincent Trocheck, Matthew Tkachuk or Aaron Ekblad.

Two first-place teams, separated by four points in the overall standings. The Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy this season. The Panthers were Stanley Cup runners-up last season.

And these star-laden rosters are coached by two of the all-time best in the game, Peter Laviolette and Paul Maurice.

Go ahead and try to pick a clear favorite in this series.

So, like any great Stanley Cup Playoff series, one of the key deciding factors may reside outside of the star power on each side. Who else will step up or what else will happen unexpectedly that could swing a game or tilt the series one way or the other?

The 2024 Eastern Conference Final is no different in that respect. So, let’s examine X-factors for the Rangers and Panthers in this clash of NHL titans.

Related: What second-round stats say about Rangers vs. Panthers

Rangers X-factor: Third-line forwards

NHL: New York Rangers at Detroit Red Wings
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The top-six forwards have carried the Rangers offensively through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Zibanejad and Trocheck each have 14 points, tied for fifth among all NHL postseason skaters. Panarin leads the League with four game-winning goals. Kreider is tied for fourth with seven goals after his incredible natural hat trick in Game 6 of the second round against the Carolina Hurricanes.

But the scoring balance has been extremely top heavy for New York. Though 10 postseason games, the top-six have scored 26 of its 35 goals.

Of course, on one hand, that’s great news. The Blueshirts best players are leading the way. No championship team wins without star production. The Rangers are getting that.

But against the Panthers, if the Rangers can get more production from their third line, that could swing the series. The Rangers have just two goals from their third line in the postseason. Kaapo Kakko scored once in the first-round series against the Washington Capitals and Will Cuylle added a goal against the Hurricanes. Alex Wennberg has not scored a goal, nor has Filip Chytil, though he’s only played once, Game 3 against the Hurricanes, his first after a six-month injury absence.

Despite the lack of production, New York’s third line has played some good hockey overall in the playoffs. They’ve had effective zone time, in essence pinning the opponent in its own zone instead of defending back in the Rangers end.

Against the Hurricanes, the third line was on for one goal for an one against, and had a 16-13 advantage in scoring chances 5v5, a 7-3 edge in high-danger chances, per Natural Stattrick. Those are solid numbers against a quality opponent.

If the third line can pop a few goals on top of that continued strong play, it can make a huge difference against the Panthers. And while the entire line is an X-factor, the real key offensively is Kakko. He’s the most talented of the third-liners and flashed at points against the Capitals and Hurricanes. He has 15 shots on goal and it feels like if he can get one goal, there’s more to follow.

And if Chytil plays in this series, he can be a real X-factor, as well, since the potential is there to be a big boost offensively if he can find his game after such a long layoff.

Florida Panthers X-factor: Vladimir Tarasenko

NHL: Florida Panthers at Toronto Maple Leafs
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Bennett almost was the choice here since the talented superpest can help blow up a series in so many ways, not unlike his teammate Tkachuk or Boston Bruins captain Brad Marchand.

But the X-factor selection for the Panthers is former Rangers forward Vladimir Tarasenko. The 32-year-old, who won the Stanley Cup in 2019 with the St. Louis Blues, has not made much of an impact in these playoffs. Or at least, not yet.

Tarasenko, who’s largely played on a line with Barkov and Reinhart, is ninth on the Panthers with five points (two goals, three assists) in 11 postseason games. He has only 14 shots on goal, which is 10th among Florida’s skaters. Most troubling is that he’s been held without a shot in five of 11 games this spring.

However, after a slow start to the playoffs, Tarasenko had warmed up a bit with 10 shots in the final five games against the Bruins in the second round.

As the Rangers know, Tarasenko can be a big-time postseason player, one who can play up and down the lineup and can be a difference maker on the power play. His contributions go beyond scoring since he’s disruptive in all three zones.

In 2023, Tarasenko scored three goals for the Rangers in their seven-game loss to the New Jersey Devils in the first round. In the 2019 Cup run, he scored 11 goals and 17 points in 26 games. He has 108 games of Stanley Cup Playoff experience, and scored 46 goals in that span.

If he gets untracked, that could be a problem for the Rangers. Tarasenko is seeking his first goal at even strength in these playoffs and his two power-play goals are two off the team lead of four shared by Tkachuk and Barkov.

Perhaps, playing the Rangers will spark another gear in Tarasenko’s game. Keep an eye on an old friend in the Eastern Conference Final.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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