Sunbelt Stanley: Eastern Conference Final Preview

Southeast Division always and forever.

Sunbelt Stanley: Eastern Conference Final Preview
Photo by Done By Alex / Unsplash

Four of the NHL's southernmost teams have made it to the Conference Finals and one of them will become Stanley Cup Champion in 2023. The Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights have come out of the west, while the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes have emerged from the East.

These franchises only share two Stanley Cups between them, with the Stars winning in 1999 and the Hurricanes winning in 2006. The Panthers have made one finals appearance, as have the Golden Knights in their young history. The winner of this championship will be a long-overdue victor and a success for hockey in the South.

Justin will cover the Western Conference Final and the guy I think most Lightning fans will be cheering for. But before that, let me walk you through the Eastern Conference Finals between Florida and Carolina.


Hurricanes Lines

Stefan Noesen - Sebastian Aho - Seth Jarvis
Jordan Martinook - Jesperi Kotkaniemi - Jesper Fast
Jack Drury - Jordan Staal - Martin Necas
MacKenzie MacEachern - Paul Stastny - Derek Stepan

Jaccob Slavin - Brent Burns
Brady Skjei - Brett Pesce
Shayne Gostisbehere - Jalen Chatfield

Frederik Andersen
Antti Raanta

Panthers Lines

Carter Verhaeghe - Alexander Barkov - Anthony Duclair
Nick Cousins - Sam Bennett - Matthew Tkachuk
Eetu - Luostarinen - Anton Lundell - Sam Reinhart
Colin White - Eric Staal - Zach Dalpe

Gustav Forsling - Aaron Ekblad
Marc Staal - Brandon Montour
Josh Mahura - Radko Gudas

Sergei Bobrovsky
Alex Lyon


As a Canadian, I hear a lot about needing to be a patriotic Canadian and cheer for Canadian teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs. As tiring as that demand has always been, it's become more clear in recent years it's just a ploy from the big Canadian broadcasters (at the moment, Sportsnet) to get more fans to watch their shows.

I say all that to ask this, has anyone in Lightning Land been asked if they'll support the Florida Panthers because they're Stately siblings? It feels really gross to think about – like asking Leafs fans to cheer for the Canadiens a couple years ago when the Lightning won. I cheered for the Lightning, obviously, and I think most Leafs fans did.

The Lightning and Panthers are the exact opposite of mutual friends, but exactly what the NHL wants them to be: bitter rivals. Every game since that series in 2021 has been angry, brutal, and aggressive. There were line brawls in the preseason and October. There is zero love between these two teams, and I don't blame a single Lightning fan for cheering for Carolina in this series. Or ignoring the series altogether to watch our favorite squash fight some Knights.

As for the Carolina Hurricanes, I can't really recall any recent or past drama between the two former Southeast Division teams. Just one playoff series in 2021 that the Lightning won rather easily (4-1). The Canes were good when the Lightning were bad and vice versa until most recently. The Lightning have an amicable 12-11 record against the Hurricanes in the past five seasons.

It would've been nice to see the Lightning and Hurricanes duke it out more often in the past couple years since they both play for similar strategies in the sport. Both teams are high penalty taking and drawing teams, but push for infractions for different reasons. The Lightning leaning into their power play, while the Hurricanes knowing the refs can't call every illegal play defensively. Both teams command control of the ice when they play with strong CF% numbers (this year the Lightning did it against the Leafs). The Lightning use their wingers to control the neutral zone and take lots of shots when in the offensive zone, while the Hurricanes use their mobile defense to push the play up and use offense as a good defense.

The only thing the Hurricanes have lacked in recent years has been goaltending (Nedeljkovic, Raanta, Mrazek, Reimer, Ward, Darling), but have finally gotten enough of a good year out of Frederik Andersen to make a run.

Former Bolts

The Panthers obviously have Carter Verhaeghe, aka the one that got away. He is coming off his first career 40-goal season. The Panthers also Radko Gudas, who was with the Lightning during their early cup runs, as well as Givani Smith, brother of Crunch forward Gemel.

As far as I can tell, the Hurricanes don't have any former Lightning players or personnel. Sort of lends to the lack of rivalry here.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The Panthers might be in trouble in this series because they were able to feast on a slow Bruins and Leafs defense for most of each series enough to win with their rush offense and shooters. Against the Hurricanes, they'll have trouble getting around their very mobile group. Their hope will be to capitalize on mistakes and pressure the weaker defenders among the group. The Hurricanes will lean into owning the puck a lot of the time. But like the Leafs found out, it's not smart to neuter your own offense because you're afraid of rushes against. Those rushes will come, the key is to keep pushing offensively.

The Hurricanes will be in trouble if Andersen can't make a save on those low frequency, but high danger rush chances from the Panthers shooters. I look at Brent Burns and wonder if that's a weak point also. Rotations are going to happen, will the forwards be able to limit mistakes? The other way the Hurricanes might his a brick wall is with the literal brick wall that is Bobrovsky (sometimes). He's on a hot run, how long will it last?

Series Schedule

Thursday, May 18th: 8:00 pm on TNT, CBC
Saturday, May 20th: 8:00 pm on TNT, CBC
Monday, May 22nd: 8:00 pm on TNT, CBC
Wednesday, May 24th: 8:00 pm on TNT, CBC
Friday, May 26th: 8:00 pm on TNT, CBC
Sunday, May 28th: 8:00 pm on TNT, CBC
Tuesday, May 30th: 8:00 pm on TNT, CBC

Nice and simple.