Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin makes a save in Game 6 against...

Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin makes a save in Game 6 against the Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C., om Thursday. Credit: AP/Karl B DeBlaker

It only seems like the Rangers are playing the same team in the Eastern Conference Finals as they did in the second round, mostly because their opponent for Game 1 on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden is from the Southeast and wears red as its primary color.

But these are the Florida Panthers up next for the Rangers, and they are not to be confused with the Carolina Hurricanes, whom the Rangers beat in six games to get here.

“There's some similarities to Carolina in the way that they play, and an aggressive mindset,’’ Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said on Sunday. “But they're also a little bit different.’’

Florida, which won the Atlantic Division title in the regular season, beat the Boston Bruins in six games to join the Rangers in the East final. And they are shooting for their second consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.

Here are 5 keys to the series:

1. Experience counts

The Panthers stunned the league last season when they squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the East and knocked off the No. 1 seeded Bruins, who’d put together a historic regular season, in the first round. But they didn’t stop there. They continued their playoff run all the way to the Finals, where they lost in five games to Vegas. So they’ve been here before. And, if anything, they were better this year than last year. The Panthers were thought, by many, to be the best team in the East (if not the league) for most of the season, until a late season dip allowed the Rangers to pass them in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy.

2. Let’s get physical

Florida led the NHL in hits in the regular season, with 2,339, and they are second in the playoffs in hits per 60 minutes, at 47.15. And some of their hits cross the line, too. Sam Bennett’s sneaky punch to the face of Boston’s Brad Marchand in Game 3 knocked Marchand out of the game and kept him out of Games 4 and 5 as well. The punch was unseen by the officials, but a day or two later, video showed Bennett move the puck at center ice and then throw a rabbit punch – with his stick still in his gloved hand – at Marchand, knocking him out of the game. Then, in Game 4, Bennett shoved Boston forward Charlie Coyle into Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman, and then knocked the puck in for a key power play goal that proved a turning point in that game. Boston challenged the play, alleging goaltender interference, but the NHL allowed the goal to stand. Watch out for Florida’s No. 9.

3. Aren’t they special?

People think the Rangers are too reliant on their special teams, but having one of the league’s best power plays, AND one of the best penalty kills (both were ranked third overall in the regular season) has served the Blueshirts well, to this point. The Rangers’ special teams are still going strong in the playoffs (the power play was third-best in the postseason entering Monday, clicking at 31.4%, and the penalty kill was second-best, with a kill rate of 89.5%) and both units were big factors in each of the first two series. They will want to keep that going. Florida’s penalty kill is third-best in the postseason (86.1%) and their power play is eighth, clicking at 22%.

4. Net neutral?

In most matchups, the Rangers have the advantage in goal because they have Igor Shesterkin. But against Florida, that’s not automatically the case, given that the Panthers’ goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy this season. Shesterkin’s 2.40 goals-against average in the playoffs is in the same ballpark as Bobrovsky’s 2.37, but Shesterkin has a save percentage of .923, while Bobrovsky’s is .902.

5. Late additions

Of the two teams, Florida added the biggest name at the trade deadline, in Vladimir Tarasenko. The Rangers brought in Jack Roslovic and Alex Wennberg. Tarasenko and Roslovic both play on the first line, and both have two goals in the postseason. Roslovic has five assists and Tarasenko three. The Rangers, though, also added Filip Chytil – back from injury – in the playoffs. He could make a difference.


Colin Stephenson: Rangers in seven. People have pooh-poohed the Rangers’ regular season success all year, but all year they’ve kept finding different ways to win. Expect them to do that here, too.

Neil Best: Panthers in six. Florida is like the Hurricanes, with an ornery streak that makes them extra-difficult to handle. Plus, Sergei Bobrovsky will be the best opposing goaltender the Rangers have faced in the playoffs to date. If the Panthers win, it will be the fifth time in a row the Rangers and Islanders have reached the conference final that a Florida team took them out.

Andrew Gross: Rangers in seven. It just feels like it’s their year.

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