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Eastern Conference Finals preview: Panthers ready to pounce

The Florida Panthers upset two of the Original Six to reach the Eastern Conference Finals and the right to face off against the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Carolina Hurricanes had to fight through a storm of injuries on their way to winning the Metropolitan Division but have still managed to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals without needing a Game 7. 

Meanwhile, the Florida Panthers fought through two of the most star-studded rosters to get this far and are now within one series of challenging for the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1996.

Florida shows flashes of last season

The Florida Panthers were last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners for registering the league's best record but, for long periods, struggled to follow up such a dominant season this time around.

The acquisition of Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames over the summer was a fantastic move as they looked to improve on last season's Conference Semifinal defeat, but they still had to fight until the bitter end to earn the last Wild Card spot in the East. 

Since then, they’ve learned from their all-offensive approach from last year and become much more balanced under new head coach Paul Maurice. 

They knocked off this year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners and record-setting Boston Bruins after being down 3-1 in the series. 

They went on to win six straight games and subsequently knocked out the Toronto Maple Leafs on their home ice in just five games. 

With the MVP-caliber season of Tkachuk - who is +700 to win the Conn Smythe Trophy - and the more balanced approach, Florida can win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history against a Carolina team that relies primarily on defense. 

The Panthers are a slight +115 underdog to defeat the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals and advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

Carolina comes up clutch

For a divisional winner, there was plenty of skepticism surrounding the Hurricanes heading into the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

One of the leaders and biggest offensive weapons - Andrei Svechnikov - found himself on the injured reserve. With the Hurricanes already a team predicated on defense, that was a huge loss. 

Then, in the first round against the New York Islanders, Teuvo Teravainen went down with a hand injury that required surgery. 

These setbacks put plenty of pressure on Sebastian Aho - +450 to score the most points in the series - but he’s been able to be clutch enough to lead the ‘Canes to the Eastern Conference Finals. 

They’ll have had a full week off between their series-clinching win against the New Jersey Devils and Game 1 against the Panthers, potentially dangerous as that type of layoff can start turning rest into rust. 

With Carolina allowing the fewest shots on goal this season and the Panthers taking the most, we should see a true and intriguing battle in this series, in which the Hurricanes are -135 favorites to prevail.

Maurice's men are also currently betting favorites to hoist Lord Stanley with odds at +230, with the Panthers considered the outsiders at +300.

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