2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs Conference Finals Preview

Doors that were open in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for sentimental picks like Toronto and Edmonton got slammed shut as four teams definitively earned their places in the Conference Finals. Florida, Carolina, Dallas, and Vegas each notched decisive series victories to setup a decidedly non-traditional set of Stanley Cup semifinalists.

In a year filled with playoff upsets, easy arguments could have been made for three of the four teams to reach this point. Even Florida, the lone exception, is just one year removed from winning the Presidents’ Trophy.

The question now: who wins it all? My last two Cup picks, Boston and New Jersey, are both out. I’ll take the most well-rounded team left in the playoffs — Dallas — as my pick, but strong arguments could be made for any of the other three teams.

Eastern Conference Finals

Florida Panthers vs. Carolina Hurricanes

While Florida had a rather dismal regular season, the Panthers got hot late just to make the playoffs. Since Game 5 against the Bruins, Florida has been the most dominant postseason team, losing just once. Florida’s persistent forecheck was an absolute nuisance for both Boston and Toronto. Rather than sit back, the underdog Panthers came in aggressive waves at both teams.

Ever-present Matthew Tkachuk (team-leading 16 points) is leading the way for the Panthers, both in the scoring department and in the rattling-the-opponent department. Carter Verhaeghe (12 points) and Sam Bennett have also found their offensive stride, while Aleksander Barkov is content in being the setup guy. Along with Tkachuk, the biggest revelation in this year’s playoffs has been Brandon Montour (team-leading six goals), who has become one of the best 200-foot players in the NHL. Montour leads a Florida blue line that includes Gustav Forsling and Aaron Ekblad, who are playing strong in front of the resurgent Sergei Bobrovsky.

Banged-up Carolina looked awfully impressive in its series victories over the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils. While the Hurricanes won’t overpower anyone with offense, Sebastian Aho (team-leading five goals and 10 points), Seth Jarvis, overtime hero Jesper Fast (five goals), and the surprising Jordan Martinook (10 points) are providing hard working goals.

The Hurricanes are winning games with their stifling defense and penalty kill. The group of Brent Burns (eight points), Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, and Shayne Gostisbehere have been a menacing force, making life miserable on opponents trying to get to either Frederik Andersen or Antti Raanta in goal.

Florida has fooled me twice, but I’ve liked this Carolina team for a long time. I think the Hurricanes will win this series but expect the Panthers to really make Carolina work for it. Luckily, no team is built more to win a low-scoring, grinding series than the Hurricanes. Because of that, I’ll pick Carolina to win this series in seven games.

Western Conference Finals

Dallas Stars vs. Vegas Golden Knights

It is hard to not get on board the Dallas Stars train this postseason, as this squad is easily the most balanced team left in the playoffs. There is no weakness with Dallas. The Stars have a great mix of veterans and young players that can score and defend. Plus, it does not hurt that Dallas is backed up by an outstanding goaltender in Jake Oettinger.

Surprisingly, Oettinger (8-5-0, 2.75 GAA, .903 SP) looked human at times against the Seattle Kraken, but the Stars were able to outscore their problems. Roope Hintz (team-leading 19 points) has been a beast in the playoffs, while 38-year-old Joe Pavelski (eight goals in eight games) continues to defy father time. Hintz and Pavelski get plenty of scoring help, especially from Miro Heiskanen, one of the best two-way defensemen in the NHL. Veteran Ryan Suter is defying his age with rejuvenated play, but the Stars’ depth on defense might struggle to contain the potent third and fourth lines of the Golden Knights.

Relentless Vegas is looking strong after clear series victories over Winnipeg and Edmonton. The Golden Knights fell behind at times against the Oilers, but a clear edge in 5-on-5 play made the difference. Jack Eichel (team-leading six goals and 14 points) is proving he’s the offensive leader Vegas was desperate to acquire. Eichel looks great along with the persistent Mark Stone, emerging Chandler Stevenson, and sparkplug Jonathan Marchessault.

The two-headed defensive monster of Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore were terrific against Edmonton’s stars, and the pair led the most underrated aspect of the Golden Knights. With questions in goal, Vegas has needed its defense to play strong and they’ve done just that. Right now, it looks like Adin Hill is the man for the Golden Knights to backstop a Cup run.

While Edmonton struggled five-on-five against Vegas, a much deeper Dallas team should be able to counterpunch in this series. The Golden Knights also were able to take advantage of shaky Oilers goaltending, which Dallas doesn’t feature. If the Stars need any extra motivation, their coach, Pete DeBoer, was fired last offseason by Vegas. I’ll pick the Dallas Stars to win this series in six games.

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