Panthers now 1 win from return to Stanley Cup Final, while Rangers seek to force a Game 7


SUNRISE, Fla. — The missions for both the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers couldn’t be simpler at this point in the Eastern Conference title matchup.

For the Panthers, it’s win one game and return to the Stanley Cup Final.

For the Rangers, it’s win one game and return home with title hopes still alive.

The Prince of Wales Trophy — the one given to the team that wins the East, a prize that Florida skated away with 12 months ago — will be in the Panthers’ building on Saturday night. Florida will play host to the Rangers in Game 6 of this East title encounter, the Panthers now up 3-2 in the series after a 3-2 win at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.

“We don’t want to think too much ahead right now,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said.

Translation: The job is not finished.

“The team that is closest to their identity wins, whether it’s an elimination game or not,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said in New York on Friday, before the team made the flight back to South Florida. “How fast and quick you can get to your identity wins the game.”

The Rangers — the Presidents’ Trophy winners for having the best regular season record this year — have already won once at Florida in this series, taking Game 3 in overtime, so they surely know that they can go on the road and prevail. New York also had 25 road wins in the regular season, tied for third-most in the NHL behind only Florida and Dallas.

“Now we’ve just got to go there, get one and give ourselves a chance to come back here and win a Game 7,” Rangers defenseman Adam Fox said after his team lost on Thursday at home.

Florida is getting just enough in terms of pucks in the net to win — scoring exactly three goals in all three of its victories in the series. The Rangers are 43-1-0 this season when allowing two goals or less (1-0 in this series); they’re 22-27-4 when allowing three goals or more (1-3 in this series).

“We knew it was going to be tight defensively coming in here,” Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said. “I mean, the way they played the regular season and the way they played the playoffs up until this point let us believe that it wasn’t going to be wide open.”

The last four games have all been decided by exactly one goal, New York winning the first two, Florida winning the last two — and continuing the trend of the Panthers seeming perfectly comfortable in uncomfortable playoff moments.

Florida is 16-5 in one-goal games over the last two postseasons. That is, by far, the best record in one-goal playoff games since the start of 2023.

“Our approach is one game at a time. We’ve got business to take care of still,” Florida forward Sam Bennett said. “All we’re thinking about is Game 6 at home. That’s our entire focus, on that game right now.”

Move over, Original Six. Step aside, colder climates. If you want hockey in June … you’re coming to Florida.

Yes, Florida.

When the puck drops on Saturday night, the state of Florida — 2021 and 2022 in Tampa, 2023 and now 2024 in Sunrise — will become the first U.S. state or Canadian province to ever play host to an NHL game in June in four consecutive years.

Pennsylvania had two different three-year streaks of June NHL games — 1995-97 and 2008-10. The Sunshine State is seeing June hockey for the seventh different year overall, two back of Pennsylvania for the most such instances in NHL history.

If the Rangers force a Game 7, the state of New York would have a June game for the seventh different year as well.

Florida’s win at New York on Thursday night was the Panthers’ 63rd of the season, including playoffs.

That’s a franchise record — topping the 62 that the Panthers won in the 2021-22 season.

Florida — which will play its 99th game of 2023-24 on Saturday night — is now assured of playing at least 100 games this season for only the third time in the franchise’s 30-year history. The Panthers had 104 games in 1995-96 and 103 games last season.

The Rangers have 65 wins this season, second-most in club history. The Stanley Cup-winning 1993-94 squad won 68 games.

Florida is trying to be the first team since Pittsburgh, in 2016 and 2017, to oust the Presidents’ Trophy winner in consecutive seasons.

The Panthers beat Boston in Round 1 last year and the Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy as the team with the most regular season points this year. Washington won the trophy in both 2016 and 2017; the Penguins eliminated the Capitals in the second round in each of those years.

Before that, the last instance of a team ousting a Presidents’ Trophy team two years in a row was Detroit — against Colorado in 1997 and Dallas in 1998, both times in the conference finals.

The Panthers are 2-2 in closeout opportunities this season and 9-6 all-time when having a chance to advance.

The Rangers are facing elimination for the first time this season — but went 6-2 when facing a win-or-go-home game in the previous two seasons.

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL



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