NHL playoffs: Panthers knock off Rangers to reach 2nd straight Stanley Cup Final

The Florida Panthers are headed back to the Stanley Cup Final, hoping for a different outcome this time.

A year after falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2023 Final, the Panthers defeated the New York Rangers 2-1 to eliminate the Presidents' Trophy winners in six games in the Eastern Conference final.

They will await the winner of the Western Conference final between the Dallas Stars and Edmonton Oilers, with Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final scheduled for Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+) in Florida or Dallas. The Oilers currently lead the Stars 3-2, with a chance to close out the series Sunday.

Sam Bennett got the Panthers on the board first, turning a misplay by Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba into a mismatch alongside Evan Rodrigues, who got the assist.

Further replay showed the puck only reached into the goal by a few inches.

Vladimir Tarasenko followed midway through the third period, assisted by Anton Lundell and Eetu Luostarinen.

The Panthers ended up out-shooting the Rangers 34-22 and had more meaningful scoring chances, but the Rangers weren't without opportunities. It's just that the threat was often over after one shot, with the Panthers consistently winning loose puck battles and preventing second-chance shots.

The Rangers pulled goalie Igor Shesterkin with a little over two minutes remaining and finally found the net via a snipe by Artemi Panariin with 1:40 left. That was all they got, though, leaving Amerant Bank Arena to celebrate a few minutes later.

The Panthers are in the Stanley Cup Final for the second season in a row and third time in franchise history. After losing to the Golden Knights last year, Florida rebounded and improved by 10 wins and 18 points, capturing the Atlantic Division title.

After dismissing their intrastate rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in five games in the first round, the Panthers then needed six games to eliminate both the Boston Bruins and Rangers.

A balanced offense has led the Panthers to within four wins of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title. It hasn’t just been the star players, like Matthew Tkachuk (19 points), Aleksander Barkov (17 points), Sam Reinhart (eight goals) and Carter Verhaeghe (nine goals) producing. Bennett (six goals) and Lundell (12 points) have chipped in up front, and from the blue line, Gustav Forsling (four goals) and Brandon Montour (nine points) have been vital contributors.

SUNRISE, FL - JUNE 01: Florida Panthers center Sam Bennett (9) gets high fives after his goal in the first period during game six of the Eastern Conference Finals between the New York Ranges and the Florida Panthers on Saturday, June 1, 2024 at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Fla. (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Panthers are back in the Stanley Cup Final, with Sam Bennett coming through in Game 6 against the Rangers. (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has one shutout and is 7-3 this postseason in one-goal games. He hasn’t outshone Shesterkin or Stars netminder Jake Oettinger, but he’s been solid enough and received plenty of support from the offense.

They also aren’t shy about playing physical, leading all playoff teams in penalty minutes (205) and misconducts (eight).

This is the second time in three seasons the Rangers have been eliminated in the Eastern Conference Final. General manager Chris Drury has spent and made shrewd moves to put the team into contender status. They won the Presidents’ Trophy this season with the best regular-season record, but like the 10 teams before them that won the award, their offseason will begin without reaching their ultimate goal.

What sort of work ahead is for Drury this summer? Trade deadline acquisitions Alexander Wennberg and Jack Roslovic are among the team's unrestricted free agents, as well as veteran winger Blake Wheeler, who missed most of the second half of the regular season and the first two playoff rounds after suffering a serious leg injury in February.

Heart and soul defenseman Ryan Lindgren, young blue liner Braden Schneider and 2019 No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko are set for restricted free agency. Lindgren and Kakko hold arbitration rights.

There is also the looming extension for Shesterkin, whose contract will expire after next season. The 28-year-old Russian has provided stability in net after Henrik Lundqvist’s departure from the franchise. And even with a rising salary cap ceiling, the term and dollar amount he might seek could hinder other areas that may need to be sustained or improved.

The Rangers currently have a little over $10 million in salary cap space with the projected $87.7 million ceiling for 2024-25, per Cap Friendly.

Rangers fans know the team will spend, but some of their offensive leaders are creeping toward their mid-30s. Their window remains open, so it’s now a matter of what moves Drury can make that will determine how long they’ll retain the title of Cup contender.