Just three days before the start of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, no one saw the Florida Panthers getting farther than the New York Rangers. Florida had to deal with the winningest regular season hockey team in league history while the Rangers took on a cross-town rival.
Yet here we are.
The Panthers are heading to the Stanley Cup Finals after a remarkable playoff run that has seen them knock off three of the Eastern Conference’s top teams in the Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, and Toronto Maple Leafs. Just a year after winning the President’s trophy and being bounced in the second round last season, Florida is just four wins away from their first championship in franchise history.
There’s much to learn from a miracle playoff run like this for a playoff failure like the New York Rangers. The question will be if the team will be interested to learn from them.
Gritty players matter more in playoffs
Comparing the Rangers and Panthers as overall rosters is very simple. Both teams have solid offensive depth, a strong goaltender, and some excellent defensive pairings. So why is Florida celebrating an Eastern Conference Title, not New York?
The answer is simple: grit.
Florida has plenty of veteran players who play the kind of gritty brand of hockey that is successful in the playoffs. It’s why they beat Carolina at their own game and overwhelmed a “skilled” Maple Leaf squad. Stars like Matthew Tkachuk have made a living off of gritty goals and physical play throughout this playoff run.
There isn’t a star on the Rangers right now that can mimic the blend of skill and grit that Tkachuk possesses. Add in others like Aleksander Barkov and Sam Reinhart and this team is just tougher than the Blueshirts in almost every facet.
If the Rangers want to match what the Panthers have done this postseason, they will need to get a lot tougher and grittier.
Trust in a goaltender is key: but don’t leave them out to dry
New York knows very well how a goaltender can alter a series. They have Igor Shesterkin to thank for their first-round series going seven games, to begin with. But the lesson Florida could teach them in regards to their goaltender is to make sure they don’t leave their goalie out to dry.
Florida’s defense in the past two series has suffocated two very strong hockey teams. Sergei Bobrovsky has also been tremendous throughout their run. So long as the Panthers continue to help their goaltender out, and he rewards them with excellent performances, Florida will have an excellent chance to succeed in the Cup Final.
And the more the Rangers rest on their laurels defensively in front of Shesterkin, the bigger the contrast between the two teams will be.
A coach who can blend styles is important
Paul Maurice, in his first year with the Panthers, has done an incredible job of being the perfect blend of tactician and locker-room presence. He’s been a big reason why the team has shrugged off their failings as President Trophy winners just a year later.
New York is searching for a new head coach as well. While they continue to find the right person in the locker room, it’s important to remember that the Rangers have already failed with a guy who commands respect amongst the players. It’s certainly important, but finding a coach that can successfully win at the x’s and o’s is also a paramount importance for the way most of the team plays.
This next coaching hire will be one of the most important in team history. If they get this right, they could very well see the impact immediately as the Panthers have done with Maurice.
They could also fail far worse if they get it wrong though.
2023 Stanley Cup Final Odds
- Vegas Golden Knights: -115
- Florida Panthers: +110
*Stats courtesy of DraftKings