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It's Rangers vs Panthers For A Ticket To The Stanley Cup Final

Eliot J. Schechter. Getty Images.

Despite finishing the regular season with the league's best record, it's fair to say the Rangers were part of a trio considered the cream of the Eastern Conference crop. After dismissing the Carolina Hurricanes they now square up against the other remaining Eastern elite for a ticket to the Stanley Cup Final. Last year's conference champs, the Florida Panthers. The Canes were pesky and relentless. The Cats? Well they're heavy and downright mean. A crew of motherfuckers so easy to hate unless they're on your squad, led by Tkachuk & Bennett, pose a different type of challenge for the Blueshirts.

A challenge I think they can handle.

What was the main gripe from those crying about the Rangers beating Carolina? "Waaahhh the Canes were the better 5x5 team waaaahhh..." as if every other aspect of the game doesn't matter. It's true. 5x5 isn't their strength. The Rangers rely on special teams and goaltending, so as long as they can avoid getting caved in 5x5 they'll always have a chance to win. They proved that last round. Next up are the Panthers who simply don't give a fuck about taking penalties. They were the second-most shorthanded team all regular season. Plus they drew the most penalties by a good amount. Translation: no team skated less 5x5 minutes per game than Florida. Exactly how the Blueshirts wanna play.

Florida has solid special teams but the Rangers were better all season & continue to be in the playoffs. Not only are they better, their powerplay in particular is much more consistent. In losses this year, New York had the #1 PP in the league while the Cats were dead-last (8%). In wins, the Panthers shoot all the way up to third while the Blueshirts sit 10th. There's a lot of volatility in the Florida powerplay and when it's bad, they lose. Take away Game 3 vs Boston where they went 4-6 and they've cashed in at a lowly 14% this postseason. Now they face a penalty kill that's scored as many shorthanded as they've allowed. Advantage Rangers.

Speaking of volatility, that's also what the Panthers have in goal. Bobrovsky obviously had a solid regular season. He's a Vezina finalist. But his squad was great at minimizing quantity just like Carolina did for their goalies. Bob did his job, but his job was easy. He's had a strange postseason though with a paltry .902 save percentage despite facing just 24 shots a night. If you dig deeper, a lot of those shots are high-danger and he's been great there so far. Among goalies who won at least one round, only Shesterkin faces high-danger at a bigger clip than Bobrovsky - but Bob's .873 save percentage on those shots is well ahead of Igor (.794). Still, he's stopping the tough ones and letting the easy ones beat him. Kinda defeats the purpose. A team that cedes a lot of high-danger & a goalie that's given some freebies is right up the Rangers alley. We saw what happened to the Canes when Andersen gifted a few.

It looks like the Blueshirts will get a big depth boost with Filip Chytil skating with the third line the last couple days. Assuming he remains healthy and can play the full series his presence will help counter the depth of the Panthers. They got a real tough bottom six who can certainly sprinkle some scoring on top of their in-your-face physical style, but no one close to matching the skill level of Chytil. He looked great in his lone appearance last round and will likely be crucial to providing some secondary offense. Bumping Cuylle down also provides a boost to their 4th line by adding a second 13-goal scorer along with Vesey. This will be the best lineup the Rangers start a series with.

The wild card for New York - Adam Fox. After taking a shot to the knee in the Washington series we really haven't seen much of the "real" Fox. He's still grinding out his usual workload but the offensive results haven't been there. He went scoreless in the final four vs Carolina (he didn't go more than two pointless games all year) & didn't have a single PPP the entire series. If he's banged up you gotta hope these five days off get him closer to full strength. With Montour leading the way offensively for the Panthers back end, the Rangers need prime Fox to counter. Assuming these off-days helped, I expect a big-time bounce-back in a series where cashing in on powerplays will be crucial for both squads.

Every night is gonna be a fight. The Blueshirts will need to stand up to Florida's physicality while staying disciplined when they dig deep into their bag of dirty bullshit. Home ice helps, but both teams excel wherever they play. Their game is their game and I truly feel the Rangers game is the more consistent one right now. The Panthers are clearly capable of running through whoever is in front of them but so far, despite getting to the ECF, their playoff performances have been a mixed bag. If they don't start peaking now they're not gonna get away with it another round.

Rangers in 6.