Rangers, Panthers clash in heavyweight Eastern Conference final

Three wins and four points separated the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers during a competitive regular season in which four Eastern Conference teams finished within five points of each other, so it is hardly surprising both teams survived the first two rounds of the postseason.

Now, a conference final many projected to occur gets underway Wednesday night when the Rangers host the Panthers in Game 1.

The Rangers are seeking their second trip to the Stanley Cup final since ending a 54-year drought in 1994. New York is in the conference finals for the sixth time since 1994 and fifth time since 2012 but its only win in this round occurred in 2014 when it beat the Montreal Canadiens before dropping a five-game series to the Los Angeles Kings.

The Panthers are in their third conference finals and in this round for the second straight season. Last season, Florida stunned the 65-win Boston Bruins in the opening round, topped the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games in the second round and then swept the Carolina Hurricanes in four one-goal games in the Eastern Conference final. They were outscored 26-12 in losing a five-game Stanley Cup final to the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Rangers hold home-ice advantage throughout the postseason after setting team records with 55 regular-season wins and 114 points to finish one point ahead of the Dallas Stars in the Presidents’ Trophy race.

New York then won its first seven postseason games by sweeping the Washington Capitals and winning the first three games in the second round against the Hurricanes dropping its next two contests. A natural hat trick from Chris Kreider in the third period in Game 6 on Thursday gave the Rangers a 5-3 win and the clincher as Igor Shesterkin made 33 saves to cap a series where he faced an average of 37.2 shots per game.

“We understand that the hardest work is yet to come, starting in this round,” Rangers’ coach Peter Laviolette told reporters after practice on Monday. “I think our guys are ready for that challenge. I don’t think we’re looking backwards in our rearview mirror with a big smile on our face. I think that the toughest work is in front of us, and we’ve got to be ready for it.”

Motivated by a rough performance last postseason against Vegas, the Panthers won the Atlantic Division by finishing with 52 wins and 110 points — the second-highest totals in team history.

The Panthers advanced by winning a five-game series over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round and getting a goal from Gustav Forsling with 93 seconds left in Game 6 of the second round to secure a 2-1 victory over the Bruins on Friday and cap a series where the Panthers won three road games.

Forsling’s goal gave Florida its fourth one-goal victory of the postseason but the Panthers showed they are capable of producing big numbers. They scored at least five goals in their other four wins, including six in Game 3 at Boston.

“They were the best team in the regular season,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said of the Rangers. “They have a lot of good offensive players and they have a deep lineup, so it’s going to be a big challenge for us, but I think we’re ready for that. We just need to concentrate on ourselves and play our game as good as possible.”

This is the second postseason meeting between the teams. The Rangers won a five-game opening round series in 1997 — the year after Florida reached the Stanley Cup final in its third season.

The Panthers won two of three games the teams played in the regular season.