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Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers set to face Panthers in Eastern Conference final

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(AP) One year after reaching the Stanley Cup Final, the Florida Panthers are back in the Eastern Conference final.

The Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers have made it there for the second time in three years.

Now, the East’s division winners will meet in the playoffs for just the second time — first since 1997 — when they face off in Game 1 of the conference finals at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night (8 p.m. EDT, ESPN).

The Rangers have been bucking the Presidents’ Trophy curse simply by making it this far. Since Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2013, the Rangers are only the second Trophy winners to advance beyond the second round — joining the 2015 Rangers.

New York opened the playoffs by winning its first seven games — sweeping Washington in the first round and taking the first three games against Carolina in the second round. After losing two straight, the Rangers mounted a third-period comeback in Game 6 to beat the Hurricanes and advance to East final.

 

“There’s a good vibe, a good energy (on the team), New York defenseman Adam Fox said. “We’ve battled hard to get here, and there’s still a series ahead of us that we have to prepare for and we’re ready to go.”

The Rangers are led by Artemi Panarin, who had an MVP-caliber season with 49 goals and 71 assists. Vincent Trocheck, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Fox also topped 70 points. Kreider (seven goals) and Trocheck (six) have been leading the way in the playoffs, and Alexis Lafrenière is also making solid contributions following his breakthrough season.

“They’re the best team in the regular season so it’s going to be a big challenge,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “We just need to concentrate on ourselves and play our game as good as possible.”

Florida is led by Sam Reinhart (94 points), Matthew Tkachuk (88), Barkov (80) and Carter Verhaeghe (72). They are among the team’s top scorers in the postseason as well.

The Panthers had a surprising playoff run a year ago, beating league-best Boston in the first round and reaching the Cup Final before falling to Vegas. They finished first in the Atlantic Division this season, and were just four points behind the Rangers. Florida beat Tampa Bay in five games in the first round and got past Boston in six in the second round.

“They’ve been a top team in the league in playing for the Cup last year and finishing first in their division,” Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said. “They bring speed, they bring size, they bring skill and physicality. There’s some similarities to Carolina in the way they play an aggressive mindset. … They’re also a little bit different.”

Florida won two of the three matchups in the regular season, with the Rangers winning in a shootout in the last meeting in late March.

The Rangers, seeking their first title in 30 years, have the lowest odds among the four teams remaining to win the Stanley Cup, according to Bet MGM Sportsbook, and the Panthers have the second best.

GOALIES
Both teams have been getting strong efforts from their goalies as the two have put up similar numbers, both during the season and the playoffs. The Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin was 36-17-2 with a 2.58 goals-against average and .913 save percentage, and the Panthers’ Sergei Bobrovsky went 36-17-4 with a 2.37 GAA and .915 save percentage. In the playoffs, Shesterkin is 8-2, 2.40 and .923 while Bobrovsky has gone 8-3, 2.37 and .902.

“We’ll see a matchup of two great ones,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “It’s a theme for our playoffs because (Tampa Bay’s Andrei) Vasilevskiy was very strong at certain points in that series, and (Boston’s Jeremy) Swayman had a .955 (save percentage) at some point in our series.”

SCORING
The Rangers were seventh in scoring (3.39 goals per game) during the season while Florida was slightly behind (3.23). In the playoffs, the Panthers have upped their average to 3.55, just ahead of the Rangers at 3.50.

Florida has had 14 players score goals — led by Verhaeghe (6), Reinhart (5) and Barkov (5) — and 18 get at least one point. New York has goals from 13 players, and 18 have at least one point.

SPECIAL TEAMS
The Rangers converted 26.9% on the power play during the regular season, and have upped that rate to 31.4% in the playoffs. The Panthers were at 23.5% during the season and are slightly below at 22% through 11 postseason games.

On the penalty kill, the Rangers were third in the NHL at 84.5% and have increased that to 89.5% with four short-handed goals in the first two rounds. The Panthers are right behind at 86.1%, up from 82.5% during the season.

SEEING FAMILIAR FACES
The teams have several connections as Trocheck spent his first seven seasons in the NHL with the Panthers, Panarin and Bobrovsky were teammates on the Blue Jackets, and Florida’s Vladimir Tarasenko and Niko Mikkola finished last season on the Rangers. Also, Laviolette coached Bobrovsky in Philadelphia, and Maurice coached New York’s Blake Wheeler, Jacob Trouba and Jack Roslovic in Winnipeg and Rangers assistant coach Michael Peca in Toronto.

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