Friday, May 24, 2024

2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Nikita Kucherov, Artemi Panarin among players to watch in the Eastern Conference

The Stanley Cup Playoffs offer some of the most chaotic theater in all of sports, and this year’s edition is set to get underway on Saturday.

It’s no secret that there are several elite teams in the fold this season. The New York Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy, and look like an extremely formidable foe for any team in the East. The Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers are two other talent-riddled squads in the East, and here are some of the conference’s other top players that are worth keeping an eye on throughout the postseason.

Nikita Kucherov | RW | Tampa Bay Lightning

Kucherov certainly was an electrifying player throughout the regular season, and don’t look for him to show any signs of slowing down now that the playoffs have arrived. Kucherov led the league with 144 points (44 goals and 100 assists) and became just fifth player in NHL history to record 100 assists in a single season. His vision is unheralded considering that he could easily pile on way more goals than he does. Kucherov always seems to be thinking one step ahead of the opposition, and it also doesn’t hurt that he plays on a line with Brayden Point, who just registered a 46-goal campaign. There are very few playmakers that are as savvy as Kucherov when they have the puck on their stick.

Artemi Panarin | LW | New York Rangers

Panarin produced his first 100-point season in 2023-24 as he tallied 120 points (49 goals and 71 assists). Panarin took the term “playmaker” to a completely different level, and helped lead the Rangers to claiming the Presidents’ Trophy. But when it comes to the playoffs, Panarin’s production has left a little to be desired, at times, over his career. He recorded just two assists in last season’s opening-round loss to the New Jersey Devils. Simply put, the Rangers are going to need more offense from Panarin if they want to make a deep run this spring.

Auston Matthews | C | Toronto Maple Leafs

Matthews may be the most gifted goal scorer in all of the NHL, which was evident by his 69 goals during the 2023-24 season. Matthews tallied at least one goal in eight of Toronto’s final 10 regular season games. The Maple Leafs are going to depend on Matthews and his top line to put the puck in the net consistently against a talented Bruins goaltending duo of Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark. Matthews did average a point-per-game in the 2023 postseason, so expect more of that in a series that could go the distance.

Sam Reinhart | C | Florida Panthers

Reinhart couldn’t have picked a better time to have a career year since he’s slated to be a free agent this summer. Reinhart racked up a career-high 57 goals, and only Matthews had more league-wide. The Panthers standout is most dangerous when he’s hovering around the net. Obviously, the Panthers have a ton of offensive firepower in the form of Aleksander Barkov, Matthew Tkachuk, and Carter Verhaeghe, but Reinhart is the player that the Lightning will likely have the most eyes on throughout their opening round series.

Jake Guentzel | LW | Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes swung for the fences with the trade deadline acquisition of Guentzel, and it’s safe to say that it paid off. Guentzel, who had spent his entire career with Pittsburgh, has thrived since arriving in Carolina. He has tallied 25 points (eight goals and 17 assists) in just 17 games with his new team, and really provides an additional avenue of scoring prowess for the Hurricanes. The scoring depth that Carolina possess is outstanding, but Guentzel is the type of player who can put a team over the top in terms of chasing a Stanley Cup.

David Pastrnak | RW | Boston Bruins

Pastrnak is the straw that stirs the drink in Boston. Pastrnak compiled his second consecutive 100-point season to the tune of 110 points (47 goals and 63 assists) in 2023-24. The 27-year old is as gifted of a goal scorer that you’re going to find across the NHL. Pastrnak did cool off from a goal-scoring standpoint late in the season, but it’s hard to imagine him not turning it back on for the playoffs. After all, this is a player who has tallied five goals in the Bruins opening round series against the Panthers last year.

Andrei Vasilevskiy | G | Tampa Bay Lightning

It seems crazy to think about, but statically, Vasilevskiy is coming off one of the worst regular seasons of his career. Vasilevskiy missed nearly two months at the start of the season due to back surgery, and ended up tallying a career-high 2.90 goals-against-average in 52 games. That’s certainly not the Vasilevskiy that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing, especially when the postseason rolls around. Over the course of his NHL career, Vasilevsky has registered a 65-42-0 record, a 2.37 goals-against-average, and a .921 save percentage in the playoffs. Vasilevskiy can be a break wall that can alter the course of a series when he’s playing at his absolute best.

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