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TONY’S TAKE – 2024 EASTERN AND WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL PREVIEW

Updated: May 23

by Tony Fiorello

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 6, 2024: The Stanley Cup is staged for a visit by staff members of the Nevada Congressional Delegation at Capitol Hill on March 6, 2024 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by John McCreary/NHLI via Getty Images)


Welcome to this year’s editions of the NHL’s Eastern and Western Conference Finals, where four teams will battle for the right to become the final two squads to square off for the most famous trophy in sports.


This season represents a breath of fresh air. Neither of the league’s final four franchises have won the Stanley Cup in 25 years – the last to do so was the Dallas Stars in 1999 (New York hasn’t won since 1994, Edmonton in 1990 and the Panthers haven’t won it yet).


Throughout the postseason, Buffalo Sports Page will provide you with series previews and predictions from the start of round one through the finals. Previews will become more in-depth as the playoffs roll along, but for now here is our analysis of the conference finals.


EASTERN CONFERENCE

New York Rangers (1) vs. Florida Panthers (1)

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 09: Vincent Trocheck #16 of the New York Rangers skates with the puck as teammates Artemi Panarin #10, Jacob Trouba #8, and Igor Shesterkin #31 follow the play against the Washington Capitals during the third period of the game at Capital One Arena on December 9, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)


Over the last few years, the importation of Artemi Panarin plus a pair of stud defensemen in Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox has turned the Rangers into one of the best teams in hockey. The names previously mentioned have been supported by Chris Krieder, Mika Zibanejad and Vincent Trocheck, who continue to shine on Broadway. Youngsters Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chytil have shown flashes of brilliance while veteran pickups Barclay Goodrow and Jack Roslovic have been brought in by general manager Chris Drury and new head coach Peter Laviolette to provide grit. Igor Shesterkin has been a worthy successor to Henrik Lundqvist in between New York’s pipes.


2023-24 is the seventh time the Broadway Blueshirts have reached the NHL’s Final Four in the last 30 years and they are attempting to get to the Cup Final for the first time in 10 years. They have gotten this far after sweeping the Washington Capitals in four games and eliminating the Carolina Hurricanes in six.

DALLAS, TEXAS - MARCH 12: Aleksander Barkov #16 of the Florida Panthers is congratulated by Matthew Tkachuk #19 and Sam Reinhart #13 after scoring a goal during the third period against the Dallas Starsat American Airlines Center on March 12, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)


Florida is playoff-bound for the fifth straight year (the first time in franchise history that’s happened), and the appointment of the well-traveled Paul Maurice a year ago to replace the tandem of Andrew Brunette and future Hall of Famer Joel Quenneville has given the Panthers some much-needed guidance behind the bench. Maurice inherited a team bolstered at forward by Selke Trophy-winner Alex Barkov and gritty Matthew Tkachuk, supplemented by quality depth in Sam Reinhart – who had a career-high 57 goals – Carter Verhaeghe, Anton Lundell, Vladimir Tarasenko and Sam Bennett. Defensively the Panthers are held down by Aaron Ekblad, Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour. In goal the aging Sergei Bobrovsky has turned back the clock and was outstanding in the regular season with a 2.37 goals-against-average, a .915 save percentage and six shutouts.


This season is just the third in the team’s 30-year existence that Florida has reached the conference final – joining the 1995-96 team, which got to the Final in just their third year and last season’s Cup finalists. The Panthers reached this point by beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games and defeating the Boston Bruins in six.


PREDICTION

Rangers in seven. Shesterkin is at the top of his game and New York is playing their best hockey in the postseason. Considering they won the President’s Trophy in the regular season, that will be a tough assignment for the Panthers to figure out.


WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas Stars (1) vs. Edmonton Oilers (2)

DENVER, COLORADO - MAY 13: Goaltender Jake Oettinger #29, Jason Robertson #21 and Miro Heiskanen #4 of the Dallas Stars celebrate a 5-1 win against the Colorado Avalanche in Game Four of the Second Round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Ball Arena on May 13, 2024 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)


The Dallas Stars have reached the postseason for the seventh time in the last 11 years. Older forwards like 39-year-old Joe Pavelski, captain Jamie Benn (34) and Tyler Seguin (32) are still steady point producers as they age while guys with fresher legs like Roope Hintz, Jason Robertson and Wyatt Johnson are key contributors. Defensemen Miro Heiskanen, Ryan Suter and Esa Lindell have continued to perform well on the back end while Thomas Harley has had a breakout campaign. 25-year-old Jake Oettinger has been stellar in goal for coach Peter DeBoer and general manager Jim Nill, and offseason pickup Matt Duchene has been a nice piece to the team’s puzzle.


2023-24 is the third time in five years the Stars have reached the Western Conference Final, the seventh time since the team moved from Minnesota to Dallas in 1993 and – going back to their first year of existence in 1967-68 – the 13th time they have been among the league’s final four teams standing. Additionally DeBoer is appearing in his seventh conference final in the last 13 years (2011-12 New Jersey Devils, ‘15-16 and ’18-19 San Jose Sharks, ’19-20 and ’20-21 Vegas Golden Knights and ’22-23 Stars), and he and his team have reached this round by knocking off the defending Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights in seven games and edging the Colorado Avalanche in six.


EDMONTON, CANADA - MAY 01: Zach Hyman #18 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrates his second-period goal against the Los Angeles Kings with teammates Leon Draisaitl #29, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins #93, Evan Bouchard #2 and Connor McDavid #97 in Game Five of the First Round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on May 1, 2024, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)


Edmonton continues to blossom in the Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl era, and the all-world duo (each had over 100 points again – McDavid became one of just five players ever with a 100-assist season) isn’t doing it alone. With Zach Hyman (who had a career-high 54 goals), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Evander Kane, Adam Henrique and Corey Perry in tow, the Oilers have good secondary scoring threats. The team is held down on the rear by defenders Darnell Nurse, Cody Ceci, Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm. Stuart Skinner and Calvin Pickard are solid in net for new head coach Kris Knoblauch, who took over behind the bench after a slow start to the season cost Jay Woodcroft his job.


This year will mark the 11th instance that Edmonton has advanced to the conference final since the Oilers’ inaugural season in the NHL in 1979-80, behind just the Chicago Blackhawks (12) for the most in that time span. They haven’t appeared in the Cup Final since 2006, and they’ve gotten here by emerging victorious over the Los Angeles Kings in six games and surviving a seven-game ordeal with the Vancouver Canucks.


PREDICTION

Dallas in six. The Stars’ depth, defensive play and their goaltending (which is a huge advantage) will be the deciding factors here.


STATS AND MUSINGS

·         According to Prashanth Iyer of the Expected By Whom podcast, since the NHL has gone to a 16-team playoff format in 1979-80 Bobrovsky has the third-highest save percentage in a conference final (minimum four games played) with a mark of .971 against Carolina a year ago. Only Jean-Sebastien Giguere (.992 against the Minnesota Wild in 2003) and Tuukka Rask (.985 versus the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013) have higher numbers.

·         Five ex-Buffalo Sabres are on the Panthers’ roster this year (Reinhart, Montour, Kyle Okposo, Evan Rodrigues and Dmitry Kulikov) plus Steven Lorentz – the grandson of former Sabre Jim Lorentz.

·         The Panthers will try to be the just the third team since 1984 to win the Cup one year after losing in the Cup Final (the 1983-84 Oilers and 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins are the others).

·         Laviolette is attempting to become just the second coach ever to take four different teams to the Stanley Cup Final, joining Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman.

·         The Rangers are attempting to become the first President’s Trophy winner to win the Cup since Chicago in 2013.

·         In the final four minutes of Edmonton’s Game Seven win over Vancouver, they allowed zero shots on goal. In fact, they surrendered just 17 total in the entire game, which is the fewest shots on goal for a home team in a Game Seven going back to 1960, according to the Associated Press’ Josh Dubow.

·         Bouchard has 20 points, which are the most by a defenseman in league history through the first two rounds of one postseason according to Sportsnet Stats. He, McDavid and Draisaitl all have 20 points or more, making the Oilers the first NHL team ever with three players with 20-plus points through two rounds of postseason play.

·         Additionally, Bouchard is only the third rearguard ever with 20 points through their first 12 playoff games of one postseason. Hall of Famers Paul Coffey (who had 25 in the same span in 1985) and Brian Leetch (20 in 1994) are the others. Bouchard and Coffey are also the only defensemen in team annals with five goals in one playoff series, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

·         Edmonton is tied with the San Jose Sharks for the second-best Game Seven winning percentage all-time (.667). Only the Lightning are better (.700).

·         The Eastern Final will feature just the second ever playoff meeting between the Rangers and Panthers. The only other time these two organizations met in postseason play was 1997, where New York won in five games.

·         On the flip side, after not meeting when the stakes were highest for 21 years Edmonton and Dallas are back at it. It’ll be the ninth time the Stars and Oilers will exchange pleasantries going back to 1984 (twice they met when the Stars were known as the Minnesota North Stars) and it will be the first time the matchup will take place in the Conference Final since 1991, when the North Stars scored an upset over the then-defending Cup champions. They also faced off against one another six times in a seven-year span from 1997-2003 – after Edmonton won the first of those playoff series, Dallas was triumphant in the next five.

·         Oilers general manager Ken Holland and Stars general manager Jim Nill won four Cups and competed in six Finals together as members of the Detroit Red Wings, with Holland serving the same role and Nill as both director of amateur scouting and assistant general manager.

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