NHL Conference finals: Rangers, Panthers, Stars and Oilers [1500x844]
NHL Conference finals: Rangers, Panthers, Stars and Oilers [1500x844] (Credit: Illustration by ESPN)

Cubs Hendricks finds old form in return to rotation

Sixteen NHL teams qualified for the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs. But with two rounds complete, the field is down to the final four competitors.

Each team brings a unique set of narratives to the conference finals round -- both on and off the ice. 

Here's everything you need to know about the New York Rangers, Florida Panthers, Dallas Stars and Edmonton Oilers.

Florida Panthers

How they got here: Defeated Lightning 4-1, Bruins 4-2 Playoff takeaways

Goalie confidence rating: 8/10

Sergei Bobrovsky has improved throughout the playoffs. That's excellent news for Florida as it faces perhaps its toughest offensive challenge yet in the high-flying, high-scoring New York Rangers.

The Panthers' netminder is a solid 8-3 in the postseason, with a .902 save percentage and 2.37 goals-against average. Bobrovsky was fine in the first round but hit a real stride in the second round. The Bruins didn't test Bobrovsky often, and he had to be sharp when they did; for the most part, he has come through when Florida has needed him.

Bobrovsky's 22-save performance in Game 6 to close out Boston was some of his finest work, which should have him feeling in tip-top shape ahead of this conference finals bout.

What we've learned about the Panthers so far

Florida is impressively multifaceted, and there isn't one area where the Panthers are truly deficient. They've averaged the most goals per game among Eastern Conference playoff teams (3.55), they are stingy defensively (allowing 2.45 goals per game and only 24.1 shots on net) and they have solid special teams (with a 22% power play and 86.1% penalty kill).

Most importantly, though, Florida is balanced. The Panthers' stars have contributed as expected, with Carter Verhaeghe (six goals and 11 points), Matthew Tkachuk (four goals and 14 points) and Aleksander Barkov (five goals and 13 points) excelling. Florida's depth skaters have made their mark, from Evan Rodrigues (three goals and six points) to Anton Lundell (two goals and nine points). The Panthers have benefitted from timely scoring from the back end, too -- Gustav Forsling netting the game-winner in Game 6 against Boston was especially notable -- and Brandon Montour (three goals and eight points) has been superb.

The Panthers have enviable depth and an all-around game on which to lean.

Players who will be key to this series

New York is the Eastern Conference's second-highest-scoring offense in the postseason (averaging 3.50 goals per game), right behind Florida, so Bobrovsky being at his best is critical for the Panthers. Bobrovsky wasn't overly taxed by Boston (a difficulty because most goalies prefer a busier workload), and the Rangers project to do the exact opposite by peppering the Panthers' goalie at 5-on-5 and with their excellent power play.

Matching New York's potential attack falls on the Panthers' top-six skaters, but Tkachuk and Sam Bennett should be particularly engaged with their grittiness to get under the Rangers' skin. Florida doesn't want to be in a track meet opposite a lineup like New York's, and setting a tone with some physicality and pressure -- while holding the Rangers to the outside and away from those juicy rush chances -- is an ideal recipe for Florida to follow. New York isn't throwing many hits in the postseason (13th overall in that category) so the Panthers can use their feistier forwards to their advantage.

Player who needs to step up

Make no mistake, Sam Reinhart has been solid in the playoffs, with five goals and nine points through 11 games. But this is a series where he can shine. Reinhart had a tremendous regular season, scoring 57 goals and 94 points (including four goals in the regular-season series against New York). He just hasn't been lighting up the scoresheet as often in the playoffs, with only two goals in six games against Boston (and one four-assist performance).

It just feels like there's more Reinhart can give, particularly on special teams, where he has just two points. The margins for victory become smaller the deeper a team goes, and Reinhart has the ability to break things open for Florida. The Rangers have been heavily star-driven in the playoffs, and it's how they've arrived in the conference finals. Florida's depth has been a significant asset, but at this juncture, a true standout like Reinhart can make the series-defining difference.

Can Florida's power play match New York's?

The Panthers didn't have consistent success against Boston's terrific penalty kill (minus a four-goal outburst with the man advantage in Game 3). Florida was 0-for-7 with the extra man in Games 5 and 6, two contests decided by a single goal. Meanwhile, New York's power play has been a decisive factor in its success throughout the playoffs, and it has gotten the Rangers through some tightly contested battles.

Florida can't afford to let many power-play opportunities slip away.That won't be easy, given the Rangers' penalty kill is excellent at 89.5%. There's little doubt Florida has the talent to make more noise on the man advantage, with seven players scoring there so far -- it's just a matter of breaking through New York's defenses.

If the Panthers can put some doubt in the Rangers on that front early in the series, it would be a confidence-booster. If Florida can't, there will be nail-biting outcomes in the future.

New York Rangers

How they got here: Defeated Capitals 4-0, Hurricanes 4-2 Playoff takeaways

Goalie confidence rating: 9.5/10

Igor Shesterkin is arguably New York's postseason MVP. The Rangers' netminder has the playoff field's best record (8-2), a .923 SV% and a 2.40 GAA. At almost no point has New York had to make up for errors on his end.

Shesterkin has been an absolute difference-maker for the Rangers -- that brilliant stop on Andrei Svechnikov in the waning minutes of Game 6 of their second-round series against Carolina was a jaw-dropper -- and he has been markedly consistent, with a .910 or better SV% in 80% of the Rangers' postseason games.

It's no exaggeration to say the Rangers' hopes of reaching a Stanley Cup Final -- and winning it all -- hinge heavily on Shesterkin continuing to be the Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltender he has been since the first round began.

What we've learned about the Rangers so far

The Rangers haven't strayed much from what made them this season's Presidents' Trophy winners. New York boasts an elite power play (at 31.4%) that almost overcompensates for their average 5-on-5 scoring (they have just 20 even-strength goals through 10 postseason games).

New York's overall success has come through its top talents, from Shesterkin's goaltending to elite performances from Mika Zibanejad (three goals and 14 points), Vincent Trocheck (six goals and 14 points) and Chris Kreider (seven goals and 10 points). The Rangers haven't relied on their depth to make a difference, and while that hasn't hurt them (much) to date, it is something they could look to improve on against Florida.

Defensively, New York doesn't make it easy on Shesterkin -- the Rangers allow 32.5 shots on net per game -- but they shouldn't take their goaltending for granted. The Panthers can quickly make them pay for any sloppiness.

Players who will be key to this series

Shesterkin is essential to New York's hopes of getting past Florida. Yes, the Panthers have also leaned on their goaltending at times, but Shesterkin is an intimidating presence in the crease and provides the confidence New York needs to play the back-and-forth style that leads to those open scoring opportunities (but also makes the Rangers vulnerable defensively).

Beyond Shesterkin, this is a series where Trocheck can continue to have a major impact. He has been the Rangers' most productive skater on the power play (with eight points), and they will continue to rely on that potent man-advantage unit to carry them through another round. Trocheck has also been one of New York's stronger contributors at 5-on-5; helping bolster the Rangers there will be critical, especially when the series inevitably gets tighter.

Player who needs to step up

Artemi Panarin cooled off in the second round after a dominant start to the postseason. There's no time like the present for Panarin to turn those jets back on (so to speak).

Panarin has zero goals and two assists in New York's past three games, but he also leads the Rangers overall in playoff game-winners (four). His 11 total points show he is more than capable of avenging his past postseason demons (just two assists in seven games last year) by keeping his incredible regular-season showing (49 goals and 120 points) at the forefront of this playoff push.

While the second round saw Panarin in a lull of sorts, he can make up for lost time in this series. Florida's lineup is packed with scoring potential, and New York's ability to match it will determine who advances. Panarin should be ready to answer that bell.

Can New York's defense hold up -- and lock down?

Fun fact: Carolina outshot the Rangers in all six of their second-round games. Washington outshot New York in two of their four first-round games. Despite a solid group of blueliners, New York has been channeling some "fake it till you make it" energy on the back end (and Shesterkin playing lights-out is a big reason that hasn't ruined the Rangers' playoff run).

Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren have faced New York's hardest postseason matchups while being outshot 72-53 but not outscored (the Rangers have a goal edge of 4-3) at even strength. But that's a delicate tightrope to walk; New York could be one bad game from Shesterkin away from losing their handle on a series.

Improving defensively falls not only on the Rangers' blueliners but their forwards as well. Run-and-gun might suffice in the regular season, and having a potent power play is great. Full-team buy-in is better, and that's the question mark for New York heading into the conference finals. Can the Rangers do the little things well enough that the big ones fall more easily into place?

Dallas Stars

How they got here: Defeated Golden Knights 4-3, Avalanche 4-2 Playoff takeaways

Goalie confidence rating: 10/10

Jake Oettinger has done more than just help the Stars reach the conference finals. He's presenting one of the stronger Conn Smythe cases this postseason.

Back in the 2022 playoffs, the Stars were ousted in the first round, but Oettinger was arguably the biggest reason they pushed the series to seven games. His performances created the belief that if the Stars could somehow bolster their roster, they might be able to pose a serious problem. That time has arrived, and Oettinger has played a significant role.

What we've learned about the Stars so far

They might be the most adaptable team in this year's playoffs. Face the defending Stanley Cup champs in the first round? Spot them a 2-0 series lead, playing into a narrative in which Dallas had lost nine of 11 meetings? No problem. Advance to the second round and build a three-goal lead in Game 1, only to give up four unanswered in overtime? Yeah, the Stars found a way to overcome that too.

The Stars have faced the two most recent Cup champions -- whose rosters featured All-Stars such as Jack Eichel, Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Alex Pietrangelo -- and still won. Now they're going against Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. If they need to take on some of the NHL's best players to prove they are the NHL's best team, so be it.

Player who will be key to this series

Miro Heiskanen is averaging more than 28 minutes per game, with some of his performances going longer than the run time of a sitcom. He leads his team in points. He's at the controls of a power play that is scoring nearly 30% of the time. The years of trust he has gained allow him to be matched up against some of the NHL's best players on a nightly basis. And he is only 24.

Ever since Heiskanen debuted in the 2018-19 season, the discussion centered on how high his ceiling would be if he ever found a level of offensive consistency that could come anywhere close to matching what he does on the defensive end. What he did in the 2022-23 season provided a glimpse. What he has done during the 2024 playoffs could land the Stars a Stanley Cup.

Player who needs to step up

Joe Pavelski ranks 37th in career playoff points, and he has 74 goals in 195 postseason contests. That's what makes the fact that he has one goal and three points in 13 games this year so jarring.

Pavelski plays the sort of game that's built to succeed, in that he relies on his intelligence and positioning to either get goals or be in a place that allows his teammates to get goals. His defensive contributions have played a part in why he's averaging more than 18 minutes per game. But if Pavelski can start generating more on the scoresheet, it would make an already deep Stars attack even deeper.

Will it be five the hard way or the joy of six for the Stars on the back end?

The success of their five-player defensive structure -- coupled with Oettinger being in goal -- has allowed goal prevention to be a key facet of the Stars' success. But as they get further along, can they continue to largely play five defensemen instead of six?

Prior to Game 6 against the Avalanche, the Stars relied heavily on Thomas Harley, Esa Lindell, Ryan Suter, Chris Tanev and Heiskanen, while Nils Lundkvist averaged 4:27 in ice time in 12 games. The Stars turned to veteran Alex Petrovic, who logged more than 16 minutes in their double-overtime win. Even if part of Petrovic's workload increased because of overtime, it's still more ice time than what Lundkvist has received at any point in these playoffs. The last time Lundkvist received more than 16 minutes in a single game came back in January.

The Oilers will certainly make the Stars work on defense. Dallas' blue-line rotation will be a critical strategic point to watch as the series gets rolling.

Edmonton Oilers

How they got here: Defeated Kings 4-1, Canucks 4-3 Playoff takeaways

Goalie confidence rating: 8/10

For every setback, there has been a comeback. That has been the narrative surrounding Stuart Skinner throughout his professional career. It also describes how he managed to come back from being pulled in Game 3 of the Oilers' second-round series and benched in Games 4 and 5 before returning to help the Oilers close out the series.

What Skinner provided in those final two games was a goaltender who stopped shots within an Oilers defensive framework that takes away scoring chances and high-danger shots, whether it's in 5-on-5 sequences or in short-handed situations. If the Oilers can get that version of Skinner against the Stars, it could see them take the next step toward reaching their ultimate destination.

What we've learned about the Oilers so far

Goal prevention is just as much a priority for the Oilers as goal creation. One of the looming questions facing the Oilers over the past few years was whether they could find consistency within their defensive structure. It's a question they have continually answered since they moved on from Jay Woodcroft and hired Kris Knoblauch as head coach, which led to the addition of Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey to the Oilers' coaching staff. The arrival of Knoblauch and Coffey has since turned the Oilers into a team that can both create and solve problems in either end of the ice.

Maybe the strongest example of that progress has come during the playoffs. In the first round, the Kings went from scoring nine goals in the first two games to scoring a total of four goals over the next three. The same applies to the Canucks, who went from scoring 11 goals in the first three games to eight goals for the final four games of the series.

Player who will be key to this series

There are several reasons to highlight Leon Draisaitl when it comes to why this could be the Oilers' year to win the Cup. One of them came in the final minutes of Game 7, when Draisaitl was one of the Oilers' most active players on the defensive end. His investment into being aggressive on the forecheck played a part in Canucks' struggles to get settled in an attempt to find a game-tying goal. Draisaitl's stick was constantly moving to disrupt passes or provide some sort of additional obstacle.

So much can be said about his defensive abilities before getting to the fact that he's one of the game's most dangerous players on the offensive end -- he leads all playoff scorers, with 24 points in 12 games -- reinforcing why he might be the most important Oiler, if not the most important player in this series.

Player who needs to step up

Dylan Holloway has used the past few games to show that he is making an impact. He started Game 7 on the second line and has recorded a goal and two points over his past two games.

Receiving those sorts of contributions from Holloway is key for a couple reasons. It stems from the expectation of being a first-round pick in an organization that has found success with others taken in the opening round. The Oilers must also find ways to get as much secondary and tertiary offense as possible. In a big series (and potentially a Stanley Cup Final), Holloway can take positive career strides as the Oilers make a push to stay among the top Cup contenders.

What happens if Connor McDavid starts consistently scoring again?

It's not like McDavid hasn't been busy. He has created goals for others while anchoring the Oilers' top line and also driving a power-play unit that at one point was converting at a rate of 50% this postseason. This is what makes McDavid a perpetual threat who requires everyone's attention.

But the fact that he's scored only two goals through 12 postseason games raises two questions: What does it say that the Oilers can get this far without needing McDavid to score in bunches? And how terrifying could the Oilers be if McDavid starts consistently scoring again and continues to create for those around him?