Rangers coach breaks down challenges of facing Panthers

NHL: Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers got back to work after eliminating the Carolina Hurricanes in six games last Thursday. A well attended optional skate at the MSG Training Center on Sunday, saw both Filip Chytil and Blake Wheeler flying around the ice looking like legit options in the Eastern Conference Final.

As the team starts to prepare for the Florida Panthers, head coach Peter Laviolette provided insights to what challenges await beginning on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.

“After playing for the Cup last year and finishing first in their division, they’ve been a top team in the League,” Laviolette said. “They bring speed. They bring size. They bring skill and physicality.

“There’s some similarities to Carolina in the way that they play with an aggressive mindset. So, some of that will be similar in preparation, but they’re also a little bit different. We’re just getting into it now and getting it to the guys to prepare them.”

After dispatching of the Hurricanes, who were the third-best team in NHL during the regular season with 111 points, it’s on to the fifth-best squad. The Panthers had the same amount of points as the Winnipeg Jets (110), who had four more regulation wins to break the tie.

Simply put, it only gets harder from here.

“Every team is going to present different challenges, so we just have to be ready,” Laviolette stated.

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Rangers coach breaks down Panthers

NHL: Boston Bruins at New York Rangers
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

According to the latest odds, the Panthers (much like the Hurricanes) will open this series as the favorites. This shouldn’t come as a shock, considering the Rangers opened the season outside of the top five by most oddsmakers.

While the lack of respect is bound to continue should the Rangers get to the Stanley Cup Final, Florida’s run in 2022-23 is weighing in their favor. Although they fell in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights, the experience they garnered is invaluable.

“They’ve picked up some good confidence and experience in the last year and a half,” Laviolette noted. “There’s lots of things that they do well. They’ve got a group that’s been there and done that. Confidence goes with that too. They’re big, strong, and physical. Carolina’s a lot like that as well. They played a fast, physical, aggressive game. They’re a little different in the way they play the game, but there are some similarities.”

One area that stands out is that the Panthers actually averaged more shots on goal per game than the Hurricanes (33.7 to 33.3) during the regular season. This was certainly a challenge for the Blueshirts against the Hurricanes, and an area they’ll need to manage better.

However, the physicality between the two teams is vastly different as Florida led the NHL in hits with 2,339. That’s an average of 28.23 hits per game to Carolina’s meager 16.69, which was dead last. It’s also noteworthy to mention that the Rangers are physical themselves, averaging 23.89 hits per game.

Of course, increased physicality comes with a price not just for the opposition absorbing the hits. Florida was the most penalized team at 1,116 minutes for the 2023-24 campaign. They led the League in misconducts at 23, and averaged 5.01 penalties per game. In contrast, the Rangers only took 3.64 penalties per contest.

The Panthers have five rambunctious forwards that need to be watched closely. Ryan Lomberg (2.10), Sam Bennett (1.78), Kevin Stenlund (1.59), Nick Cousins (1.50), and Matthew Tkachuk (1.33) are tops on the team in penalties taken per 60 minutes of play (min 40 games played). Looking at the Rangers, only two players in total averaged more than one penalty per game in Barclay Goodrow (1.40) and Will Cuylle (1.20).

That’s why the Rangers power play will be crucial in this series. They can ill afford to go three games without a power-play goal against the Panthers, as they did versus the Hurricanes.

“It wasn’t in a rut,” Laviolette explained of the brief drought in Games 3, 4, and 5. “We were playing an extremely good penalty kill. One that had been really good for the entire year, and to think we would score three goals a game is the wrong thought process to have. You hope that the power play can make a difference in the series, and I think they did.”

In hindsight, Laviolette is correct as the Rangers finished with a 26.3 success rate against Carolina. In these playoffs to date, New York is operating at a 31.4%, ranked second only to Edmonton Oilers (36.8%) of all remaining teams in the postseason.

At the end of the day, this team understands that winning in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is going to come down to controlling your own emotions. They will need that as the Panthers will surely be looking to get in their faces from the drop of the puck in Game 1.

“During the course of a playoffs, you’re going to find yourself with some highs and lows,” Laviolette explained. “You’ve got to figure out how to move on from those lows. All of it, in a longer run puts some scars are you and makes you tougher. It’s naive to think you’re going to score three power-play goals every single game. It’s naive to think we would win every game. It’s what you do when you don’t have the success, and how you respond that makes you a little bit tougher to give you what you need to keep going.”

Anthony Scultore is the founder of Forever Blueshirts and has been covering the New York Rangers and the NHL... More about Anthony Scultore

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