Vincent Trocheck #16 of the Rangers collides with Eetu Luostarinen #27...

Vincent Trocheck #16 of the Rangers collides with Eetu Luostarinen #27 of the Florida Panthers during the first period in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Credit: Jim McIsaac

If there is one thing that jumps out about the Florida Panthers, it is their physicality.

Florida, surprise Stanley Cup finalists last year, led the league in hits during the regular season with 2,339. And as the Rangers prepare to face them in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, they are well aware what they would be in for this series.

“I think any team you play against, especially in the playoffs, is going to be physical,’’ said defenseman Ryan Lindgren, who will be in the Rangers’ lineup for Game 1 despite missing the last three days of practice with an undisclosed injury. “But this team, especially, that's the way they like to play. That's their identity. They're hard on the forecheck, they're physical. So, we’ve got to respond to that, and be ready for it.’’

“They play a ‘heavy’ game,’’ Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said. “Heavy can come in different ways. It can come in ‘compete’ on pucks, it can come in the battles on the walls, it can come from establishing position in front of nets. It certainly can be from finishing a hit, or fighting, or whatever it might be.

“I think physicality presents itself in different forms. I think our guys have been up to the challenge and been able to play our game, but also play any game that's come our way.’’

Knowing what they are in for against the Panthers, though, is all well and good. The question is how would the Rangers deal with Florida’s physicality. Do they have to match the Panthers, hit for hit? Or do they just play the game that works for them, absorbing whatever hits Florida throws at them but not going out of their way to make it a point to hit back?

“I go back and look at the times that we played Florida [in the regular season] this year,’’ Laviolette said. “I didn't think it was a big deal. I know that there were questions at the beginning of the year about how we would handle certain teams and their physicality, and I think our guys have done a really good job. I think one of the biggest things going into the series is we're trying to establish our game, our plan, our identity that's worked for us. And along the way, I do think you have to acknowledge your opponent and things that they do.

“And you have to make small adjustments to that,’’ he continued. “But I think our team has done a really good job of playing the hand that's been dealt. And you know, I understand the way Florida plays, but I think we’ve got to work on playing our game."

Florida’s physicality isn’t just body checks, though. The Panthers are the type of team that has no problem doing things to try and get under an opponent’s skin in order to distract them and get them off their game. According to Rangers forward Vincent Trocheck, who played the first six-plus seasons of his career with the Panthers, it will be imperative for the Rangers to keep their cool.

“I mean, it's the playoffs. You’ve got to be disciplined," Trocheck said. “So we’ve got to know the type of team they are, and they're going to try to get under your skin a little bit. But you’ve just got to stay focused on the main goal and make sure that we're staying disciplined."

Florida’s Sam Bennett was part of two controversial plays during the Panthers’ series against Boston in the second round. First, he sucker-punched Boston’s Brad Marchand in Game 3 — the play went undetected by the officials, but Marchand was forced out of the game and missed the next two games. Then in Game 4, he pushed Boston forward Charlie Coyle into goaltender Jeremy Swayman before scoring a pivotal power-play goal.

Rangers defenseman Braden Schneider was asked if the Rangers needed to have a specific plan for Bennett.

“I think you’ve just got to make sure you're playing whistle-to-whistle, and you're winning those one-on-one battles,’’ he said. “You have to have your head up and be ready to make plays. And then you’ve got to be ready to take the battle to them as well.’’

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