Rangers vs. Panthers: Staff predictions for Eastern Conference Final

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

Two teams well-acquainted with playing in the Eastern Conference Final will clash in the best-of-7 series with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line when the New York Rangers face off with the Florida Panthers.

The Rangers are playing in their second conference final in three seasons and fifth since 2012. Their most recent appearance in the Cup Final was 2014, when they eliminated the Montreal Canadiens in six games in the ECF.

The Panthers won the conference final last season, sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes, before losing to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Stanley Cup Final. Florida has never won the Stanley Cup; New York last did so 30 years ago in 1994.

This season, the Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy and Metropolitan Division with 114 points, but were 1-2-0 against the Panthers. They swept the Washington Capitals in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and defeated the Hurricanes in six games during Round 2.

The Panthers had 110 points and finished first in the Atlantic Division. They took out the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games in the first round this postseason and the Boston Bruins in six games in the next round.

Simply, this conference final literally pits the two best teams in the East.

Related: Adam Fox’s health could make or break Rangers playoff success

Forever Blueshirts staff predictions for Rangers vs. Panthers Eastern Conference Final

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

With the Eastern Conference Final starting up Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, the Forever Blueshirts staff takes a whack at predicting whether the Rangers or Panthers will be heading to the Stanley Cup Final.

Jim Cerny, Executive Editor

Let’s start with the obvious, this should be a great series played between two elite teams, that are each loaded with skill, will and intriguing intangibles. Though each excels on special teams, the Rangers very well could win this series with their monster power play if the Panthers parade to the penalty box, as they often do. Florida averaged 13:36 per game in penalty minutes, tops in the League in the regular season, and are at 15:32 in the playoffs, second most. Yet they’ve drawn four more penalties than they’ve taken, so the Rangers PK will be key here, as well. I love that we have two of the best two-way centers in the game in this series — Mika Zibanejad and Sasha Barkov — and Vincent Trocheck is playing at that top level too. Matthew Tkachuk can be a game-wrecker in so many ways for the Panthers, and Sam Bennett and Co. are pains in the butt to play seven games against. But the Rangers are as deep and healthy, especially with Filip Chytil back in the lineup. If Sam Reinhart or Artemi Panarin get super hot, that could swing a close series one way or the other. And it’s hard to bet against Igor Shesterkin in any goalie matchup, even against Sergei Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner. I’m not breaking any news here by saying either team can win this series (or the Stanley Cup for that matter), but I’ve got to choose one or the other. Rangers in 7

Anthony Scultore, Founder

Here we go again! Another series where the Presidents’ Trophy winners are starting as the underdog. I get it! The Florida Panthers went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final and lost in five to the Vegas Golden Knights last year. They are big, nasty, and hungry. Wait a minute! Didn’t the Rangers go to the Eastern Conference Final two seasons ago losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six? Didn’t they suffer an embarrassing first-round ouster to the New Jersey Devils last season? Talk about hungry! The Rangers have shown a keen ability to rise to challenges throughout the season and in these playoffs. Meanwhile, the Panthers take a lot of penalties playing on the edge every game. I expect the Rangers special teams to continue being the difference. Rangers in 6

Conor Armstrong, Staff Writer

With the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers set to face off in the Eastern Conference Final, this series has the makings to be an all-timer. The Blueshirts are coming off a thrilling six-game series against the Carolina Hurricanes, and Florida finished off the Boston Bruins in six as well. Both teams have their stars peaking at the right time, as well as their goaltenders, Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers and Sergei Bobrovsky of the Panthers playing some of the best hockey of their careers. Most importantly, both teams have proved they can win on the road, each having a 4-1 record away from home ice. With all of this in mind, I believe that the Rangers are better equipped to steal a game on the road because of the large population of Ranger fans in Florida that make a road game feel like MSG 2.0. Rangers in 6

Benjamin Lefkowitz, Staff Writer

The matchup all hockey fans have dreamed of has finally arrived. The two beasts of the East will face off in a highly contested and grueling series. The Panthers have been the team to beat for the Rangers all season: Tkachuck, Barkov, Reinhart, and the list goes on. The goalie matchup is not as big an advantage for the Rangers as it was against the Hurricanes. Maybe the Cats can pick up a win at MSG. My X-Factor is Filip Chytil. The third line must generate offensively for the Rangers and Chytil can’t wait any longer to step on the ice at MSG. This series can go either way, but the Rangers special teams will once again prevail to help them advance to the Stanley Cup Final! Rangers in 7

Nick Palmer, Staff Intern

Despite the Rangers having the goalie advantage and boasting a superior special teams unit, this series demands a 60 minute effort from the Rangers in every game if they want to stand up to the suffocating offense and solid defensive structure of the Panthers. In the Carolina series, the Blueshirts occasionally fell into long stretches of ineffective neutral zone play and defensive lapses. Against a Florida team which already allows the fewest shots per game of the remaining postseason teams and features the two-way stud Aleksander Barkov (who won the Selke Trophy on Saturday), it’s easy to see how the unrelenting pressure of the Panthers, both offensively and defensively, becomes too much for the Rangers. If Florida can stay out of the box, they’ll take this one. Panthers in 6

Lou Orlando, Staff Intern

Carolina may have been the betting favorite to win the Stanley Cup, but Florida strikes me as the toughest matchup out of the East for New York. They’ve got a top six that can go goal for goal with the Rangers and a dynamic mix of speed and that gritty playoff physicality. Plus, Bobrovsky is a big step up in net from Frederik Andersen and Charlie Lindgren. That said, there’s not a better goaltender in the playoffs right now than Shesterkin, and if anyone can withstand Florida’s offense, it’s him. This series will be tight, but Igor plus home-ice advantage should be enough to get the Blueshirts to the Cup Final. Rangers in 7

Chris Savino, Staff Writer

After a stressful and eventful second-round win against the Hurricanes, the Rangers proved that even when things look tremendously bleak, they can pull a stunning victory out of nowhere. Now their focus shifts to a just as formidable opponent in the Panthers, who were arguably the most stacked team on paper coming out of the Eastern Conference this year. The Panthers play with guts and snot, with players like Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett, who never shy away from being pests and wreaking havoc on the ice (Just ask the Bruins). For the Rangers to win the series, another they are not favored to, they will have to match the Panthers’ head games or render them useless in some sort of capacity. They will also need contributions from their third and fourth lines, as the Panthers can easily roll four lines per game under the savvy coaching of Paul Maurice. Bobrovsky is also a tremendous goalie and big game player, but his .902 save percentage thus far in these playoffs leaves much to be desired for the Cats. Shesterkin has the chance to outduel his third straight goaltending counterpart in these playoffs, and I believe he will. The Rangers proved that they could handle an aggressive team in Round 2, and if the depth shows up for the Blueshirts, this series could be their first ticket to the Stanley Cup Final in a decade. The Rangers will chase the Cats all the way to the golf courses in South Florida. Rangers in 6

Dane Walsh, Staff Writer

This is going to be perhaps the best series of the playoffs. The Presidents Trophy and Metropolitan Division winners against the best team from the Atlantic Division and Stanley Cup runner-up just one season ago. I think on paper, these teams are so incredibly close, but the Panthers have the slight edge. Their depth is what has made them so strong, and I think their bottom six tops that of the Rangers. That being said, the Rangers just have something about them in this year’s playoffs that make me believe it is their year. They have the feeling of a magical run. With the home-ice advantage, and if Shesterkin can steal a game on the road, I think the Rangers narrowly win this one. Rangers in 7

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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