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NHL Conference Finals Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

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M1. Carolina Hurricanes vs. WC2. Florida Panthers

Hurricanes in Five

The Stanley Cup is going south as the Southernmost team in each division is in the Conference Finals. The Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers are fighting for the Prince of Wales Trophy in the East. The Hurricanes were expected to be here; they had the second-best record in the NHL and have been knocking on the door for several seasons. The Panthers were not. After winning the President's Trophy in 2022, Florida spent most of the season on the wrong side of the playoff bubble, needing a six-game winning streak in the final weeks to secure the final Wild Card spot. 

The Hurricanes imitated Super Storm Sandy as they blew away the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils in the first two rounds. The Hurricanes have gotten balanced scoring, with Sebastien Aho and Jordan Martinook each having ten points, while Frederik Anderson emerging as the hot goalie. Andersen has recorded five wins for Carolina and has a 1.80 GAA, including a game to forget in Newark. Andersen was able to frustrate the high-scoring Devils when it was needed the most. 

The Panthers rallied from 3-1 down in the first round to stun the Bruins in seven games, winning two games in overtime in Boston, including Game 7. The Panthers won the President's Trophy last year and often struggled this season, as their playoff hopes appeared to be on life support in February. Sergei Bobrovsky struggled at times in the regular season and has come alive in the playoffs, winning seven games with a GAA of 2.88. Matthew Tkachuk, Florida's significant off-season acquisition, has been outstanding in the playoffs, leading the team with 16 points, while Sam Reinhart has six goals. The Panthers made the Maple Leafs pay in the second round, winning in five games as Toronto got what they asked for. 

Both teams have had a week off since the second round getting a chance to heal. The Panthers did not want that, as they were a hot team that now had to cool their heels. The Hurricanes are the superior team and have a penalty kill that is lethal; in an 8-4 loss in New Jersey, they had three shorthanded goals. When it comes down to who will win, look to the special teams, and the Hurricanes' ability to score shorthanded is a significant weapon. Carolina is also strong at the dirt plays, winning puck battles, as they often rolled over the younger Devils. Look for the Hurricanes to rock Florida in five games. 

Western Conference Finals

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P1. Las Vegas Golden Knights vs. C2. Dallas Stars

Stars in Seven

After a disappointing 2022 season, the Vegas Golden Knights finished the season with the best record in the West after the coaching carousel saw former Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy land in Vegas, with Peter DeBoer leaving Vegas and going to Dallas. The Knights needed five games to ground the Jets while beating the high-scoring Oilers in six.  The Dallas Stars were in a dog fight all season for first place in the Central Division but settled for second on the final day of the regular season. In the playoffs, the Stars subdued the Wild in six while needing seven games to defeat the Kraken.

Call it the Peter DeBoer showdown. The well-traveled coach of the Dallas Stars was fired by Vegas following a 2022 collapse that saw the Golden Knights miss the playoffs for the first time. DeBoer, in his first season in Dallas, took the Stars to the Conference Finals and is looking to take his third different team to the Stanley Cup Final. Since 2012, DeBoer has coached four teams; in his first season in each stop, he led his team to the Conference Finals, taking the Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012 and the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016. In his first season in Vegas, DeBoer, in the 2020 bubble, led the Knights to the Conference Finals but lost to Dallas.  

Roope Hintz has been the man in Dallas, leading the Stars with 19 points and nine goals, as old man Joe Pavelski has eight goals. While the Knights have been led by Jack Eichel, who has 14 points and six goals. He is among five Vegas skaters with at least five goals in the postseason. The Knights faced a crisis point in the second round as Laurent Brossoit was injured in Game 3. Borssoit emerged as the goalie in Vegas and was crucial in their series win over Winnipeg. Aiden Hill stepped in and won three games against Edmonton, slowing down the attack of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Hill had a 2.19 GAA against the NHL's most potent offensive attack. The Stars have ridden Jake Oettinger into the Conference Finals, as he has been solid with a 2.75 GAA.

This series will come down to goaltending, Jake Oettinger; when he is on, the Stars will win, but if he is not, they will lose. Oettinger has been strong in most games, but he has had a few stinkers, and any opening will allow the Knights to walk in. This is a rematch of the 2020 Western Conference Finals in the bubble, with Peter DeBoer switching sides and coach Dallas. the Stars won that series but struggled over the next few seasons to get back to this point. For Vegas, it is their third Conference Finals in four seasons and fourth in their six-year history. The Knights are seeking to get back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since their inaugural season in 2018. Peter DeBoer, who has never lost a Game 7 as a coach, knows the weakness of the Knights and will help his team exploit it as the Stars win a seventh game on Vegas ice.