5 questions for the Eastern Conference final

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After an exhilarating end to the second round, the Rangers are preparing for their second Eastern Conference Final in the past three years.

It was Tampa Bay that stood in the way of their comeback in 2022, and while they will stay in the Sunshine State this time around, they will have to travel a little further south to get to Sunrise, home of the Florida Panthers.

The defending conference champions will provide their toughest test yet in this year’s playoffs, with Game 1 set to take place on Wednesday at 8pm at Madison Square Garden.

“They were a top team in the league,” Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said. “Playing for the Cup last year, finishing first in their division. … They bring speed, size, skill and athleticism. There are some similarities to Carolina, their style of play and aggressive mentality. Some of that will benefit us.” “I think it’ll be similar in preparation, but they’re also a little different. We’re getting into it now.”

Philippe Chytil: Oft-injured striker feels ready for EFC: ‘I want to play’

We’ll be rolling up our sleeves and analyzing the game from every angle in the coming days, but let’s start with five overarching questions regarding the Blueshirts’ ongoing quest to end their 30-year championship drought.

1. How far can Rangers’ formula take them?

It’s no secret what has propelled the Rangers to their success throughout the season and through two rounds of the playoffs. The three-part formula of world-class goaltending, elite special teams and high-end finishing ability has made them tough, with all three areas clicking while dispatching the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes.

It starts with Igor Shesterkin, who ranks first among remaining goalies with a .923 save percentage and 9.09 goals saved above expectations through 10 playoff games, according to Evolving Hockey. He is the backbone of the Blueshirts, their most important player and the ultimate worker.

Next up is a dynamic play that converts at a 31.4% clip and a solid 89.5% penalty kill, which ranks third and second among playoff teams, respectively. The Rangers have won or tied the special teams battle in all but one game so far, with the only exception coming in a Game 4 loss last week when Brady Skjei scored the game-winner on one of just two goals for the Canes in that series.

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Finally, there is the clutch factor of their favorite players. No one came better than Chris Kreider, who put the team on his back with a historic hat-trick to close out Game 6 in Carolina, while all four of Artemi Panarin’s goals were game-winners. Vincent Trocheck added an overtime comeback of his own in Game 2, Alexis Lafreniere scored four goals that either tied the game or put New York ahead, and Mika Zibanejad provided consistent production with 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in total.

This allowed the Rangers to overcome somewhat mediocre play in a five-on-five matchup, where they barely outscored opponents through two rounds, 19-18, while being outshot, 249-195, and posting a 47.25% xGF that ranks 12th among 16 . Playoff teams, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The Panthers rate better across the board at 5-on-5, but the same can be said for the Hurricanes. The Rangers have a proven recipe for winning with quality over quantity, especially when it comes to total shots — in fact, they were outscored in all six games against Carolina — but they can’t afford too much slippage in all three of their key areas.

2. Can they match Florida’s “level of battle”?

Since the day he was hired last summer, Laviolette has wasted no time urging the Rangers to embrace “that enthusiasm within the game that makes teams great.” This message resonated throughout the season, resulting in a team working harder in training and on match day.

Laviolette asked them to raise what he repeatedly referred to as the “battle level” because he believed it was necessary to take the next step. It is important to have offensive skill, but there is an element of hustle and determination that is necessary to become a champion.

The Panthers embody this motto. They are brimming with star talent at every position, but there is a distinct tenacity that emanates throughout their lineup. That’s led by Matthew Tkachuk, who is not only their best player, but also one of the NHL’s fiercest competitors. The list goes on from there, including bruising forwards Sam Bennett, Nick Cousins ​​and Ryan Lomberg and a group of defensemen who are big and mobile and use their size to push opponents. Even Sam Reinhart, who has scored 57 goals, is playing with a marked edge.

Like Carolina, Florida is an in-your-face pre-screening team that will make you win every inch of the ice. The difference is that the Panthers do it with a mean streak, which will put the tough Laviolette Rangers to the test, both physically and emotionally.

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“They might do it a little differently,” Laviolette said when asked about Florida’s physicality compared to Keane’s team. “Each team will present different challenges, so we just have to make sure we are ready.”

3. What will the D pairs look like?

The Rangers used the same defensive sets for their first nine playoff contests before making a change in Game 10, which led to mixed results.

This represents a shift in strategy. A late-season switch led to three pairs – Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox. Kandre Miller and Braden Schneider; Erik Gustafsson and Jakob Trouba – who have been used fairly evenly, with Laviolette trusting the three for most games and distributing minutes accordingly.

By returning to the familiar duo of Miller and Trouba in the sixth match, the coach returned to relying on his best duo while limiting the use of the number 3 of Gustafsson and Sneijder.

Perhaps it was in response to a tough Game 5 for Miller and Schneider, who were on the ice for two of Carolina’s four goals while posting a shooting percentage of 37.5%. But they have been by far the Rangers’ best duo over the past eight games, while Gustafsson and Trouba have more often been the victims.

It’s also possible that Laviolette wanted to separate the two veterans and return them to their usual partners, but that sent their ice time in completely different directions. Trouba posted a team-high 23:43 TOI in Game 6, with 20:42 coming at 5v5, while Gustafsson ended up with 13:49.

The next step will be obvious. Were the What’s Old New Again pairs a temporary bounce in an attempt to crack the sticks? Or has Laviolette decided to return to his regular-season style, which means relying heavily on Miller and Trouba for the toughest assignments?

4. Who could be the X Factor?

What about Lafreniere? The 22-year-old forward is coming off a 57-point regular season and has carried that momentum into the Big Ten playoffs.

He was deceptively good with four assists in four games against the Capitals, then came out in much sharper fashion with six points — including four goals — in six games against the Hurricanes. You could argue he was the Rangers’ best skater in Games 2, 3 and 4, when he collected five points and 13 shots on goal.

“He seems to be getting stronger,” Laviolette said after Game 4 in Carolina. “It was nice to continue to see him make strides in the playoffs and be a difference-maker.”

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It will be huge if Lafrenière can maintain the point-per-game pace against the Panthers. It is equally important to maintain his assertive playing style, both in terms of getting into high-risk areas and playing with a physical advantage.

If the Rangers are going to compete with Florida’s top six, they’ll need No. 13 to help tip the scales.

5. Will we see Philip Chytil or Blake Wheeler in this series?

The odds look better for Chytil, who said he felt “good” after Sunday’s practice at MSG’s training center and made it clear “I want to play.”

If healthy, the talented 24-year-old is undoubtedly one of the Rangers’ top 12 forwards. He would bring a much-needed offensive punch and shooter mentality to the third line while instilling speed into the lineup.

Barring another hiccup, there’s a good chance we’ll see Chytil at some point in this series, perhaps as soon as the first game. But given his history of head injuries, this remains a very delicate situation. Credit the Rangers for handling it that way, rather than rushing him back after leaving an emotional Game 3 sick and hurting.

Wheeler, who is coming off a right leg injury that was initially feared to be season-ending, looks like a longer shot for several reasons.

For starters, he was cleared for full contact last week and has had significantly less practice time than Chytil. Secondly, there is a less convincing argument that he fits into the current lineup.

The Rangers acquired Jack Roslovic to replace Wheeler at right wing on the top line, and although things weren’t smooth sailing all the time, the 27-year-old has scored seven points (two goals and five assists) over 10 playoff games – including… That’s a pair of third-period assists in the win over Carolina.

Even before Wheeler’s injury, there were questions about his declining foot speed and production. Since he doesn’t feature as a fourth-line player, it will likely take an injury to one of their top nine forwards for the 37-year-old to return.

Still, it’s great to have that kind of proven depth waiting for you.

Vincent Mercogliano is the New York Rangers team reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more about his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.

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