Keys To the East: How the Rangers Can Tame The Panthers For Eastern Crown

It's time to hunt again for the New York Rangers. They've won eight playoff games and defied the odds, "upsetting" the Vegas bettors by defeating the Carolina Hurricanes. However, they still need eight more to reach their goal of winning a Stanley Cup. Yet, to reach their first final in a decade, they must beat the East's reigning beasts, the Florida Panthers. This series should be a classic, so let's consider what to expect. 
Florida Panthers v New York Rangers
Florida Panthers v New York Rangers / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages
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Matthew Tkachuk, Adam Fox
Florida Panthers v New York Rangers / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages

Examining The Blueline:

Adam Fox, a former Norris Trophy winner, has yet to be himself since colliding with Caps defenseman Nick Jensen in the first round. He has gone four straight games without a point.

On the other hand, the Panthers have one of the NHL's best defensive duos. Aaron Ekblad, their top defenseman, is a 6-foot-4, 215-pound former No. 1 overall pick who excels at covering ice and closing gaps.

Gustav Forsling has also been outstanding, earning some Norris Trophy votes this season. With Forsling on the ice, the Panthers have allowed only 1.52 goals per 60 minutes at five-on-five. He also led all Florida defensemen with 39 points, showing he's a scoring threat.

Miller and Trouba have allowed 97 goals over the past two seasons, just behind St. Louis' Nick Leddy and Colton Parayko with 101. Despite this, three consecutive coaches have favored Miller and Trouba as a top pairing. However, it seems risky, especially with Trouba's recent uneven play. He was on the ice for nine of Carolina's 19 goals in the last series, including a rough stretch involving eight out of ten goals.

If these struggles continue, don't be surprised if Laviolette pairs Miller with Braden Schneider.

Brandon Montour and former Blueshirt Niko Mikkola have been solid on the Florida side. Montour takes care of puck-moving duties, while Mikkola, a former Ranger acquired at last year's trade deadline, uses his 6-foot-4 reach to lock down the defensive zone. Together, they posted a 51.7% expected goals for percentage (xGF) during the regular season.

The Erik Gustafsson-Braden Schneider pairing started the season strong but tailed off later. Schneider seemed to play better next to Miller, while Gustafsson has had some shaky moments in these playoffs.

Laviolette put them back together for Game 6 against Carolina but then cut their ice time, with both defensemen logging their lowest postseason minutes that night.

Florida coach Paul Maurice rarely uses his third pair of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Dmitry Kulikov. Still, they've been effective in limited minutes with a 54.6% expected goals-for-percentage (xGF), the best among Panthers' pairs in these playoffs. They're both trusted veterans with size and mobility, traits that every coach values at this time of year.

The last line of defense, though, is arguably the most important. It's one that decided the Rangers' previous series, and that's between the pipes.