NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: 1 reason each remaining team can win, and 1 they can’t

We’re down to the final four. The NHL Conference Finals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs kick off Wednesday night with the Panthers and Rangers facing off in the East, while the Oilers and Stars will begin to settle the West on Thursday night.

Each of the remaining teams deserves to be here, that goes without saying — and when the dust settles one of these organizations will be hoisting the Lord Stanley’s Cup. Reaching this point is unlike anything else in professional sports. The NHL is a brutal combination of the NBA’s seven game series tenacity, paired with the NFL’s brutality — and it takes a special kind of team to weather the storm are earn the right to be etched on the cup.

While each of these teams deserve to hoist the cup, not all things are created equal. Here are the reasons why each of these teams could win it all, and why they might not.

New York Rangers

Regular season: 55-23-4
Playoffs: 8-2

Why the Rangers can win the cup: Ludicrous power play

Nobody is better at capitalizing on mistakes than this Rangers team. We saw that be the biggest difference in their season win over the Hurricanes. If you give this team an inch they’ll literally take a mile, and this postseason there are four key players to getting it all done: Vincent Trocheck, Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, and Chris Kreider.

These guys have a combined 49 points through 10 games in the playoffs, with Trocheck and Zibanejad being the ideal setup men for their snipers. Over a third of the team’s playoff goals have come on the power play — with Kreider, Trocheck and Adam Fox all averaging over 12.0 goals-per-60 on the PP.

This team’s strategy is quite simple: Frustrate you into committing penalties, make you pay for it. They did this against a normally disciplined Hurricanes team, and they can do it against anyone left in the playoffs.

Why the Rangers can’t win the cup: Five-on-five

This is the other side of the coin to the Rangers. When it comes to being even strength the team is stunningly below average. Despite winning the President’s Trophy this team was a 0 in axDiff this season, which measures their goal differential in even strength scenarios. In addition they were dead average in five-on-five scoring chances.

Perhaps most alarmingly about the Rangers even strength stats is that they give up a higher-than-average number of high danger scoring opportunities. This is fine in the regular season when you have someone as good as Igor Shesterskin in net — but teams in the playoffs are better equipped to capitalize on these dangerous scoring chances.

In totality this makes the team rather one dimensional to stop. If you pepper Shesterskin with shots, and don’t give them PP opportunities they are a below-average team. That doesn’t bode well with the talent remaining in the playoffs.

Florida Panthers

Regular season: 52-24-6
Playoffs: 8-3

Why the Panthers can win the cup: The forecheck

The Panthers love to stop offense before it starts, and they’re damn good at it. Nobody left in the playoffs has a higher offensive zone start percentage than Florida, and this allows them to make things really messy for their opponents — where they thrive.

Matthew Tkachuk is the prime instigator of this forechecking amongst Panthers forwards, where he averages an offensive zone start of 56.9 percent. This is coupled with Aleksander Barkov, who has a team-high 18 takeaways.

This aggressiveness comes at a cost though: The Panthers get penalized a lot. With 167 penalty minutes in 11 games they lead the playoffs in that category as well. In total the concept here is pretty simple: Stuff the even-strength offense and create chances to such a degree that it counteracts the powerplay.

For the most part this has been working.

Why the Panthers can’t win the cup: Bob’s magic is waning

The core to Florida’s playoffs a year ago was Segei Bobrovsky being an impenetrable wall in goal. This year that’s looking a lot more suspect. The 35-year-old has slowed down a little, as so far in the playoffs he’s been a below-average goalie who can be beaten.

Through 11 games Bob has a save percentage of .902, allowing 2.37 goals per game. His -0.4 goals-saved-above-average is second worst in the playoffs, only to Stuart Skinner of the Oilers.

Every potential weakness is magnified the deeper we get in the playoffs, and this is a significant issue for the Eastern Conference Finals in particular. If the Panthers give up too many penalties on the forecheck it enables the Rangers powerplay to prey on Bobrovsky. However, they also need that aggressiveness to keep the puck out of their defensive zone.

Working around this conundrum will be key to Florida’s chances.

Dallas Stars

Regular season: 52-21-9
Playoffs: 8-5

Why the Stars can win the cup: Consistency and discipline

The Stars are not the most talented team left — far from it. However, they boast two really critical qualities to being a cup team: They have no dramatic line drop off, and they don’t make a lot of mistakes.

Dallas is the slow and steady tortoise of this Stanley Cup run, and they have no interest in becoming the hare. They will grind out wins, they’re happy to go the distance, and they make you play a full 60 minutes by keeping things close. This team has not lost a game by more than two goals during these playoffs, and even then empty netters makes that a bit of a misleading stat too.

In reality the Stars are simply brilliant at going toe-to-toe with any line, using the superior defensive players to disrupt scoring opportunities before overwhelming the 3rd and 4th lines with their depth. It’s for this reason the Tyler Seguin/Jamie Benn third line has been so good.

Why the Stars can’t win the cup: Lack of a signature superstar

That depth and consistency comes at a cost, and it’s the clear lack of a true bell cow to hang a game on when needed. Wyatt Johnston appears destined to become an elite player, but he’s not there yet — and it leaves the roster firmly in the grounds of “very good, but not great.”

The issue is that in the Western Conference Finals the Stars need to contend with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, easily the best two skaters left in the playoffs. They have the potential to score in bunches, and when that happens you need a steadying force to put the game on his back.

Jason Robertson has shown that quality at times, but they’re few and far between. That’s what makes it difficult for a team that has B+-level talent at every position, but no A+ guys. It leads to a scenario where the dam could easily break and this team could find itself underwater.

Edmonton Oilers

Regular season: 49-27-6
Playoffs: 8-4

Why the Oilers can win the cup: Star power

Defense is overrated. The Oilers prove that. When it comes to these four remaining teams there’s nobody that holds a candle to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who finished the regular season with 132 and 106 points respectively.

The bad news for the Oilers’ opponents: They’re doing in the playoffs too, particularly Draisaitl who has 24 points in 12 games.

Any conversation about beating the Oilers has to begin with how you can contain the top-end talent Edmonton has. They have the ability to put teams in goal deficits and force them to respond — winning the psychological game as a result. It’s difficult to bounce back when everything is on the line, and the Oilers know it.

Why the Oilers can’t win the cup: Goaltending

Stuart Skinner is the worst starting goalie left in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’s a -5.2 in goals saved above average, and has a paltry .881 save percentage.

This team lives and dies by its offense, hoping its defense is simply “good enough” to get the job done. More often than not it was, but that will only get more difficult from here. On paper Edmonton has what it takes to get past the Stars in the Western Conference Finals, but from there they appear poised to be eaten alive by either of the Eastern Conference teams who make it through — both of whom thrive on isolating key players and forcing teams to play deep.

Any hopes for Edmonton hoisting the cup has to be predicated on them fixing their goaltending issues, whether that’s by Skinner having a dramatic change or form — or pivoting to Calvin Pickard and hoping he can get the job done.

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