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The Conference Finals of this year’s playoffs are about to begin, and the HabsWorld writers contributed their predictions on these series.  We begin with the East.

Eastern Conference

Florida Panthers vs New York Rangers

Oren Weizman predicts: Rangers in 7 games
Norm Szcyrek predicts: Rangers in 7 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Rangers in 7 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Panthers in 7 games

(Oren) So, the buck stops here: the powerhouse Rangers, with their depth in everything, skill across the lineup, and of course, perennial Norris nominee Adam Fox on the back end, take on the Florida Bruins—yes, the joke writes itself, right? But why do the Rangers take this one? We all know the risks: getting out-goalied by Sergei Bobrovsky, getting bowled over by the other Tkachuk—you know, the better one (don’t get me wrong, the first one is pretty good too), or getting outmanoeuvred by someone who managed to extract 115 points from Jonathan Huberdeau, an obscure 50-point scorer who now plays with the Calgary Flames. So why? Why do I think the Rangers will take this? It boils down to one player: Captain Jacob Trouba. When you line up both teams, I believe this kind of demolition derby is exactly where a physical defenceman like Trouba will make the difference and close it out!

(Norm) We are looking at another close series in this year’s playoffs. There were only four points separating the Panthers from the league-leading Rangers. During the regular season, Florida won two out of the three games against New York, and all games were close scores. The Panthers’ leading scorers are Matthew Tkachuk with 14 points, followed by Aleksander Barkov with 13. Similarly, the Rangers’ top scorers are Vincent Trocheck and Mika Zibanejad both with 14 points.

Where these two teams differ is in their style of play. Florida has a very tough team, which led the NHL in hits and penalty minutes during the regular season. They have kept that intimidation level up for the playoffs to help defeat Boston and Tampa Bay. However, the Rangers have played a more skilled style and the power play was the third-best in the league before the playoffs. Since the postseason started, the Rangers have been even better with the man advantage.

When it comes to toughness, Matt Rempe will play that role to a T, and could destroy any Panther that steps out of line in this series. On defence, both teams are pretty evenly matched, although Florida’s blueliners have been contributing more offensively than the Rangers with Brandon Montour leading his pack with eight points. In goal, it’s going to be a battle of the Russian Netminders. Bobrovsky has played well enough so far this playoffs, but Igor Shesterkin has been on fire with a .923 save percentage to rank highest among remaining goaltenders. I believe this series will go the distance, but Florida’s high penalty rate will land them in trouble one too many times against a dominating Rangers power play. In the end, the Rangers will advance to the Final.

(Kevin) With three of the four top seeds remaining, two of them must face off and for once, it’s not Dallas drawing the short string. In a series that features the league’s two dirtiest current teams, the Panthers and Rangers should deliver a long list of questionable hits, some cheap shots after the whistle and whoever can remain the healthiest has the best chance to come out of this series.

The Rangers hold a slight edge in the crease as Bobrovsky can steal games but can also be a little streaky. I personally prefer the Rangers’ variety of pieces on the blue line, though it is very tightly contested, and one could certainly make the case in favour of the Panthers’ blue line. Offensively, the Rangers have more skill, but the Panthers have more jam which is often an important factor at this stage of the playoffs. How the younger Rangers players such as Rempe, Lafreniere, and Kakko hold up could be a major swing in this series against a battle-tested Panthers group.

If last year’s experience can be an advantage psychologically for the Panthers, I wonder if fatigue can become a difference with two teams that are so evenly matched? Honestly, I’m really hoping whoever comes out of the West takes the Cup, so while I am expecting a seven-game series, I’m also cheering for one with little care about the outcome once we get there. For the sake of not getting too annoyed with the Panthers too quickly, let’s call it the Rangers winning in seven games.

(Brian) There is something about the Rangers that makes me feel a little unnerved about them.  They did not exactly finish up the series against Carolina on a high note or look particularly good doing it.  That makes me think they could be a bit vulnerable, especially if they’re crazy enough to put Rempe back in the lineup.  They’re getting Blake Wheeler and Filip Chytil back so the rugged winger shouldn’t be anywhere but the press box if they’re smart.

Meanwhile, Florida wasn’t great at times either against Boston but even when they were struggling, they were strong defensively.  That gives them the edge; I think they’ll be able to keep New York’s attack at bay most nights.  I still don’t trust Bobrovsky and expect he’ll have a clunker or two in the series but in the end, they’ll have just enough to get through this one.