Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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2024 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Picks, predictions for Rangers-Panthers, Stars-Oilers conference finals series

The Stanley Cup Playoffs have provided some stellar drama throughout the first two rounds. After some entertaining action up to this point, it’s officially time to shift our attention towards the Eastern and Western Conference Finals.

Three of the four No. 1 seeds still remain in the playoff picture. The New York Rangers will host the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of the East Final Wednesday, while the Dallas Stars will host the Edmonton Oilers Thursday in the West Finals series opener. Our analysts have weighed in with their picks for both both series.

(1) Rangers vs. (1) Panthers

Chris Bengel: The Rangers folded like a cheap suit in the opening round of last year’s playoffs, but it’s been a completely different story in 2024. New York captured the Presidents’ Trophy as the team with the most points during the regular season — something that’s typically a curse for teams once they get to the postseason — but, obviously, that hasn’t bitten them thus far.

After a sweep of the Washington Capitals in the first round, the Rangers were given all they could handle against the Carolina Hurricanes in what turned out to be a very tight series. In fact, if it wasn’t for a monumental collapse by the Hurricanes, perhaps a different team advances to the East Final. The Panthers and Rangers are two offenses that match up very well against one another as they both are averaging over 3.5 goals per game this postseason. 

With star power on both sides, this series could definitely come down to which veteran goaltender rises to the occasion more often. Sergei Bobrovsky helped lead the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final last year and he has proven to be strong in between the pipes yet again with a 2.37 goals-against-average in these playoffs. Meanwhile, Igor Shesterkin, who was outplayed by Jonathan Quick at times during the regular season, has given New York a stable presence in net thus far with a 8-2-0 record and a .923 save percentage.

This is likely going to be a very physical, tight series that will feature plenty of offensive outbursts. When push comes to shove, the Panthers are the team that I think has the mettle to persevere after being pushed to their limit against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins in the first two rounds. Pick — Panthers beat Rangers, 4-3

Austin Nivison: These two teams were the best in the Eastern Conference all season, but they got here in very different ways. While the Panthers love to control play at five-on-five, the Rangers use elite special teams and world-class goaltending to punish opponents.

Looking at the Rangers’ five-on-five profile is a fool’s errand. They have posted middling numbers at even strength for years now, but it hasn’t mattered. Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin have spectacular finishing ability, the power play is almost as lethal as the Oilers’ and Igor Shesterkin is playing at a Conn Smythe level in this postseason. To make matters even more difficult for the Panthers, Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafreniere have joined in on the offensive bonanza.

Not many teams could overcome the amount of skill at the top of the Rangers’ lineup, but the Panthers might be up to the task. Florida has plenty of its own skill, with 57-goal scorer Sam Reinhart and Selke Trophy winner Aleksander Barkov in the mix with Matthew Tkachhuk and Carter Verhaeghe. Perhaps more importantly, the Panthers have Gustav Forsling on the back end. One of the most underrated players in the NHL, Forsling can thrive in even the toughest matchups, and he did just that against David Pastrnak in the second round.

When it comes to special teams, the Rangers have the advantage, and it’s not particularly close. Both teams have a strong penalty kill, but New York’s power play is far more efficient and consistent than Florida’s. The Rangers have two more power play goals (11) than the Panthers (9) in six fewer opportunities.

The goaltending battle features two incredibly talented Russians, but once again, the Rangers have an advantage there. Sergei Bobrovsky has been perfectly fine for the Panthers through two rounds, but Shesterkin has been borderline superhuman at times for the Rangers. That matchup doesn’t bode well for Florida, but the Panthers did just overcome a goaltending disadvantage against Jeremy Swayman in the second round.

I’m fascinated to see how these competing styles play out on the ice, and I expect the closest series we’ve seen so far. Only one team can advance, though, and I believe the Panthers are just a smidge more complete than the Rangers. Pick — Panthers beat Rangers, 4-3

(1) Stars vs. (2) Oilers

Chris Bengel: The Stars had one of the more difficult paths to reach the conference finals. Dallas was matched up with the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights in the opening round of the postseason, and the series ended up going seven games. In addition, the Stars faced off against the Colorado Avalanche in the second round, which resulted in a series victory in six games. Taking on the last two Stanley Cup champions isn’t exactly the most ideal way to start off the playoffs, but if nothing else it did prove that the Stars are capable. 

Entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the play of goaltender Jake Oettinger was certainly a hot-button issue after some struggles during the regular season. It’s safe to say that Oettinger has saved his best hockey for the most important time of the year. Entering the Western Conference Final, the veteran netminder has tallied a record of 8-5-0 to go along with a 2.09 goals-against-average and a .918 save percentage. According to Money Puck, Oettinger has recorded a .966 save percentage when facing unblocked shots, so he’s made some huge saves along the way.

On top of getting supreme production in the crease, Dallas has been a lethal goal-scoring team throughout the season. After all, this is a team that finished third in the NHL in goals-per-game (3.59), and tallied at least four goals in three of their six games against the Avalanche in their previous series. The Stars have an abundance of goal scorers with eight players netting at least 20 goals during the regular season. Forward Wyatt Johnston has been on an absolute heater with seven playoff goals, including a pair of two-goal performances. If center Roope Hintz is ready to go for the majority of the series, it’s hard not to like the Stars’ chances.

If the Oilers are going to win this series, they’re going to have to continue to excel on the power-play. Edmonton has converted 37.5% of their man-advantage opportunities during the playoffs. On the other hand, the Stars rank 11th among playoff teams with just a 69.2% penalty-kill rate. If there’s an area where the Oilers can have the upper hand, it’s definitely on the power-play. Pick — Stars beat Oilers 4-2

Austin Nivison: Throughout these playoffs, the Stars have displayed their elite depth and versatility. One night, Jamie Benn is coming up with a big play. The next night, Matt Duchene scores a clutch goal. Seemingly every night, Wyatt Johnston does something amazing while cementing himself as a household name.

The real X-factor for the Stars could very well be defenseman Chris Tanev, acquired ahead of the trade deadline. Tanev gives Dallas a valuable shutdown option to throw on the ice against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. In the second round, Tanev got a heavy dose of Nathan MacKinnon and fared extremely well. The Vancouver Canucks just gave the Stars a blueprint for how to contain McDavid, and Tanev will be tasked with executing it on the ice.

The Oilers, on the other hand, are here despite just two postseason goals from McDavid. That’s because Zach Hyman (11 goals) and Draisaitl (8) have been feasting while McDavid distributes to the tune of 19 assists. A decent chunk of that production has come on the power play, and that is the clearest edge for the Oilers in this series. That unit has converted on 37.5% of its opportunities, and it can tilt games in Edmonton’s favor.

That said, the Oilers’ special teams advantage may not be as big as it was against the Canucks. The Stars’ power play is operating at a 29.0% clip, which is a notable improvement over Vancouver’s paltry 13.9% conversion rate.

The biggest difference between these two teams is in the crease. The Stars have a bona fide No. 1 goaltender in Jake Oettinger, and the Oilers had to split minutes in their previous series between Stuart Skinner and Calvin Pickard. Oettinger has a .918 save percentage in the playoffs. Skinner and Pickard have combined for a .888 save percentage. If those trends continue, the Oilers will be in trouble.

I anticipate this being a back-and-forth affair, but the Stars’ depth and goaltending will prove to be too much for the Oilers’ star power to overcome. Pick — Stars beat Oilers 4-3

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