Panthers vs Rangers: Playoff Preview by the Numbers

For the second time in three years, the New York Rangers are playing for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final. After dispatching the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes to emerge out of the Metropolitan Division section of the playoff bracket, the old Southeast Division memorial tour will continue into the Eastern Conference Finals.

The reigning Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins on their path through the Atlantic Division bracket, and will look to defend their conference championship against the Blueshirts.

After both teams battled familiar playoff opponents en route to this point, postseason familiarity will go out the window when the puck drops for Game 1 on Wednesday. New York and Florida have only met once in the playoffs, a 1997 first round series that saw Wayne Gretzky record a hat trick for the Rangers in Game 4 of a series New York emerged victorious in five games, a series Florida also entered as defending conference champions.

Without much relevant history to draw upon, all there is to examine is the two teams' recent history. New York and Florida have each skated over 90 games to reach this point of the season and still be in pursuit of the Stanley Cup, so let's dive into the numbers behind each team's performance through those games:

Similar to the Hurricanes, Florida's underlying numbers were very strong across the board throughout the 2023-24 campaign. A tad worse than Carolina in terms of shot and scoring chance generation at even strength, but this Panthers team does not come with the "Corsi Merchant" accusations that the Hurricanes have acquired over the years (and reinforced with yet another playoff exit in spite of winning the shot attempt battle against New York) and has dangerous offensive players more than capable of turning those chances into goals.

Sasha Barkov is well on his way to becoming the current generation's Patrice Bergeron. Having been awarded the second Selke Trophy of his career as the league's best defensive forward on Saturday, Barkov is a world-class defender with high level playmaking skills to match, something he put on display when the Panthers visited the Rangers in the final game before the trade deadline.

Playing alongside Barkov has unlocked the potential within Sam Reinhart, the former Buffalo Sabres castoff who has emerged as one of the NHL's most dangerous goal scorers. Reinhart had never cracked the 25 goal plateau in parts of seven season in Buffalo being arriving on Florida and finding the back of the net 33 and 31 times respectively in his first two seasons. The star winger blew his previous career high out of the water this year, scoring 57 goals (a league leading 27 of which came on the power play) and finishing second only to Toronto's Auston Matthews in the Rocket Richard race.

Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe, linemates on Florida's "second" line, bring offensive firepower matched only by the Barkov and Reinhart duo, while also adding a level of chippiness and physicality more in line with what the Rangers saw against the Hurricanes. The summer of 2022 deal that saw the Panthers ship Jonathan Huberdeau and Mackenzie Weegar to Calgary land Tkachuk was arguably the riskiest deal in franchise history, and its one that's paid dividends for Florida multiple times over since consummating the trade.

Florida's depth scoring is among the league's best as well. Former Ranger Vladimir Tarasenko has been the third wheel to the Barkov/Reinhart duo throughout the playoffs, and has been effective since arriving from Ottawa at the trade deadline. Sam Bennett, Anton Lundell, and former Penguins' nuisance Evan Rodrigues give the Panthers high quality forwards to round out its top nine, with a mish-mash of depth players such as Kyle Okposo, Eetu Luostarinen, and Nick Cousins among the bodies taking fourth line shifts.

The Panthers' forward corps would prove problematic for the Rangers under any circumstances, but the recent play by some of the team's defensemen is likely to exacerbate the issue. Adam Fox is appears to be nursing a lower body injury of some sort, as New York's franchise defenseman hasn't been himself since colliding with Washington's Nick Jensen in Game 4 of the first round.

Jacob Trouba had a stretch of being on the ice for seven consecutive Hurricanes' goals in Games 3 and 4, and another rough showing in Game 5 led to Peter Laviolette reverting back to usual defensive pairings of Trouba with K'Andre Miller, and Braden Schneider alongside Erik Gustafsson. If it's any consolation, New York's forwards are likely to present similar challenge to Florida's defensive pairings.

Gustav Forsling is one of the league's best rags-to-riches stories, arriving in Florida via waivers in 2021 and playing his way onto the top pair alongside Aaron Ekbald en route to signing a $46 million contract extension earlier this year. Brandon Montour is one of the league's most prolific individual offensive creators from the blue line, and his offense-first play style is balanced by another former Ranger, Niko Mikkola, alongside him.

The third pair of Oliver-Ekman Larsson and Dmitry Kulikov would be a nightmare to play against in 2019, but thankfully for the Blueshirts the year is 2024 and neither of those players are at the heights of their powers. Given the personnel and on-ice results up to this point, it's fair to give the Panthers the edge at even strength.

The Rangers will once again have the edge in goal and on special teams coming into this series, but each of those advantages comes with a caveat. Igor Shesterkin is unquestionably better than Sergei Bobrovsky, but the same can be said of Shesterkin vs Carolina's Frederik Andersen, and that series was a Chris Kreider legacy game away from an all-time meltdown.

In addition to that, Florida has been at a disadvantage in goal in each of its previous two series, and has arrived in the final four with an 8-3 playoff record. Bobrovsky's .902 save percentage would've been enough to sink a lesser team by now, but the Panthers have gotten by. Florida's franchise netminder is more than capable of a hot streak, as Florida's 11-1 run from down 3-1 in the first round to winning the Eastern Conference Final last season was primarily a product of. Even with Shesterkin at the top of his game, this Panthers team backstopped by competent goaltending, let alone excellent play in net, is a force to be reckoned with.

The Rangers ought to be able to combat Florida's even strength advantage with its special teams superiority, but the timing of this series may minimize that. Florida has been one of the most penalized teams in the league this season, but NHL referees start to swallow their whistles to a greater degree jumping from the second round to the conference finals than any other other round-to-round advancement. That story played out to a degree against Carolina, as significantly less penalties were called in Games 4-6 compared to 1-3.

Whenever penalties are called, New York's special teams units should be up to the task. The Blueshirts' penalty kill unit once again held serve against opposing power play groups in the second round, and enter the conference finals tied 4-4 against opposing power plays, an incredible feat. The Rangers' power play went dormant in the middle of the second round, but being largely responsible for victories in Games 1 and 2 while finding the back of the net at a crucial moment in Game 6.

Adding everything up leaves the Rangers with arguably the most difficult playoff opponent they've faced since emerging from their rebuild. A conference final against a Florida-based team looking to get back to the Cup Final it played in the year before is a story the Blueshirts have taken part in recently. It's up to them to write a different ending this time around.

Prediction: Rangers over Panthers in seven games

*All Data via Evolving Hockey and