Who should Rangers fans root for in the Stanley Cup Final?

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Fellow contributor Matthew Tricomi nailed it in his assessment of the Florida Panthers and how the Rangers could learn from them.

Florida won the President’s trophy last season but was swept in the second round of the playoffs at the hands of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, Tampa Bay Lightning.

The offense led by 24-year-old Jonathan Huberdau, who had a 110-point season, went dry, and the best season in franchise history ended with a whimper. Later that Summer, GM Bill Zieto decided to make one of the biggest trades in NHL history. Vegas chose to keep its core, but Zieto didn’t. Some have. called for Drury to follow suit.

Zieto dealt Huberdau and standout defenseman Mackenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames for 24-year-old superstar Mathew Tkachuk. Then, both franchise-changing talents were given eight year extensions.

Tkachuk has been otherworldly, posting 21 points this postseason and scoring 3 of the four game-winning goals in Florida’s Eastern Conference Final series against the Carolina Hurricanes. If not for the superb play of his goaltender, he would be the runaway favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy.

That netminder is Sergei Bobrovsky. The goaltender has turned back the clock to his Vezina days of 2013 and 2017. Before this postseason he’d yet to reach the heights his seven-year $70 million contract he signed with Florida on July 1, 2019, demanded. It reached the point where rookie Alex Lyon was entrusted to start the Panther’s playoff opener against the record-setting Boston Bruins over a healthy Bobrovsky. But he hasn’t looked back since he regained the starters net with his team trailing 3-1 in that first-round series against the presidents trophy-winning  Boston Bruins.

The 34-year-old entered backstopped  Florida in their series-clinching game five with 50 saves on 52 shots before Nick Cousins’s overtime goal eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs,  and propelled the Panthers to the Eastern Conference Final.

Bobrovsky continued his stellar play in the Eastern Conference Final, recording a sensational .966 save percentage in the series, which included a quadruple overtime affair. Bobrovsky is 11-2 on the playoffs with a 2.21 GAA, a .935 save percentage, and a playoff-best +19.7 Goals Saved Above Expected. His brilliance and the team shining as underdogs have captivated the hockey world.

Then there’s head coach Paul Maurice, who Florida also brought in last Summer. The longtime  25-year bench boss immediately set the tone at his June 20, 2022, introductory press conference. “Why would we pull back a team offensively that has that kind of talent with so much offensive talent,” the coach with a reputation for being defensive-minded said. “But it has to be smart.”

The stats tell the story. Last season, Florida ranked 21st in Dump-Out Rate(23.2%),compared to 4th(27.7%) in 2023. They were last in Dumping the Puck into the offensive in 2022 (44%) compared to 12th(51.8%) in 2023. Their success has continued in the playoffs, and the results have finally followed the process.

Akin to Cassidy, Maurice is a “Barker” and wants things done his way, which looks correct. Watching Florida’s transformation should make Drury think twice about moving core pieces. An experienced coach is what the Rangers need.

Who am I rooting for?:

Having gone through it, Florida. You don’t have to agree with me, but I’ll explain. From a Rangers fan perspective, this series will serve Chris Drury well. Both teams required changes in philosophies to reach this point.

However,  Vegas didn’t need a hot goalie; Florida did. With a generational goaltender already in place in Igor Shesterkin, a Panthers win will show how close the Rangers are to winning a Stanley Cup. What they need are the right coach and fine pieces.

Vegas has six players (William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, William Carrier, Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore) from the 2018 team that made it to the Stanley Cup final in their inaugural season before falling to the Washington Capitals. They’ve been dominant all season.

The underdog Panthers are here for the first time since 1996. An abundance of the players on the roster has never won a Stanley Cup. Should these Blueshirts make it there next season, they’ll be in that position. The Panthers are what the Rangers could’ve been this season had they played better. Let that fuel them for 2023-24.