Rangers and Panthers Battle for Eastern Stanley Cup Finals Spot

The Blueshirts face what may be their toughest opponent yet in last year's Stanley Cup finals runner up after fending off the Carolina Hurricanes in a dramatic 6 game 2nd round series
Florida Panthers v New York Rangers
Florida Panthers v New York Rangers / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages

Wednesday evening sees the Rangers continue to push for a 5th Stanley Cup and their first in exactly 30 years when they take on last season's Eastern Conference Stanley Cup finalist, the Florida Panthers, beginning at 7 pm tomorrow at the Garden. This will undoubtedly be their toughest test, against an opponent that had their number in 2 of the 3 regular season games played between the teams. New York's only win came at the Garden on March 23, a 3-2 shootout win. The other 2 contests were a 4-3 road loss on December 29 and the 4-2 home loss on March 4 that they eventually avenged.

Both squads are as equally powerful as the other on both sides of the ice, offensive and defensive. Chris Kreider has 7 goals this postseason, while Florida's dangerous overtime hero Carter Verhaeghe, has 6 in these playoffs. They're about dead even on points and assists, too- Vincent Trocheck and Matthew Tkachuk both combine for 28 points, while Tkachuk adds 10 assists and Mika Zibanejad, who I share a birthday with, has 11 postseason points so far. The goaltending level is identical as well- both Igor Shesterkin and Sergei Bobrovsky are not only skilled veteran netminders in their own right, but both have 8 wins and only a couple of losses in the playoffs, the latter at 8-2, the former, 8-3. Bobrovsky also has a slightly better GAA than Shesterkin, 2.37 to 2.40. Shesterkin does outnumber Bobrovsky on save percentage, though, and it's the only large gap between any aspect of these teams, 923 to .902.

The Rangers' lines are a bit beat up from the last series, with the biggest question marks being first off their Game 6 hero in Chris Kreider, along with defenseman Ryan Lindgren and Filip Chytil, who finally returned in the 3rd game during the Carolina series, a 3-2 road win to put the Canes on the ropes with a 3-0 series lead. Now, that'd be the last win in the series for the Rangers until Game 6, but that's besides the point. If the Rangers are missing key top line pieces for Wednesday's series opener, it could spell trouble, especially since they're playing a team they split a home ice season series with. Florida is also a divisional champ, like New York, so that makes winning this series in however many games necessary of the utmost importance.

The top lines for the Rangers should still be the same with Kreider, Zibanejad and Jack Roslovic making up the very top. If Kreider is out, Artemi Panarin will more than fill in even if he's in the Rangers' 2nd line with Trocheck and young superstar Alexis Lafrenière. On the defensive side, the same situation may occur, with K'Andre Miller stepping in in case of a scratch by Ryan Lindgren. He'll still get to play with the Rangers' top defenseman in Adam Fox, however, so it shouldn't be any sort of big deal.

If there's one thing the Rangers do have a direct advantage in, it's their power play percentage. Like the save percentage gap, it's considerably more than Florida's, at 31.4% compared to the Panthers' 22%. They also are slightly stronger on penalty kill, 89.5% to 86.1%. The Rangers also edge Florida on faceoff strength, 51.5 to 50.7. Just like the Carolina series, this one may nearly go the distance with all 7 games played out. Once again, get some more popcorn, and make a bigger batch this time, because this one probably isn't going to start out the way the Carolina series did at first.