Heading into these NHL playoffs, even the boldest contrarian wouldn’t have predicted the final four to shake out this way. Injuries to key players rapidly made the Carolina Hurricanes look more like underdogs than juggernauts. The Florida Panthers needed to scratch and claw their way into the playoffs. The Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights weren’t the sexiest picks compared to the Colorado Avalanche or Edmonton Oilers.
Although this quartet may seem a little surprising at first glance, each squad brings plenty to the table as three division winners from this season and the league’s best team from a year ago square off in the Conference finals.
Here’s why each of the Golden Knights, Hurricanes, Panthers and Stars could win it all.
Carolina’s calling card: Unmatched defense, structure and intensity
Injuries to star scorers like Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty definitely made the Hurricanes less explosive, especially on paper. However, you could argue those losses forced Carolina to double down on what they already do best: play like the on-ice embodiment of their head coach Rod Brind’Amour.
From their world-class penalty kill to their mix of elite defensemen (Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin and Brent Burns) and shutdown forwards (especially Jordan Staal), no team is tougher to score against. In the very rare moments there’s a mess left behind, their reliable goaltending trio of Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta and Pyotr Kochetkov tend to clean things up.
You can see it in the underlying stats, or simply note that they easily top all final playoff teams in goals allowed (2.55 per game). In fact, they’re the only team left who allows less than three goals per game (Vegas averages exactly three while Dallas and Florida are at 3.08).
No doubt, a lot of the Hurricanes offense results from attrition: overwhelming opponents with pressure, making goals collapse under a torrent of shots. It’s unclear if any other team can dictate the terms of play quite like Carolina can.
That doesn’t mean the Hurricanes totally lack scoring talent, though. Sebastian Aho unsurprisingly leads the way (tied with Jordan Martinook for the team lead at 10 points), while young forwards Seth Jarvis and Martin Necas also give Carolina some skilled threats up front. If Teuvo Teravainen can be a semi-healthy contributor, the Hurricanes may end up with that just-right blend of suffocating pressure, stout defense, steady goaltending and timely scoring.
Panthers were a contender in the underdog’s clothing this whole time
Sending the Boston Bruins’ historic regular season to the grave and possibly spelling the end of an era for the Toronto Maple Leafs would still be impressive work by the Panthers even with a bunch of luck involved. The remarkable thing is the Panthers weren’t holding on for dear life, not even close. thisteam belongs — often outplaying two of the best teams in the NHL (including one that broke all-time wins and points records).
With the Panthers, you can’t help but start with a ferocious offensive attack. Those paying attention already noticed that Florida’s offensive process wasn’t that far off from the Presidents’ Trophy-winning outfit from 2021-22, they just weren’t enjoying the same results during the regular season.
This Hockey Viz chart captures how the Panthers besieged opponents with high-danger scoring chances.
When Matthew Tkachuk was acquired, Florida was expecting an elite player who happens to dominate the “greasy” areas you need to access to score in the playoffs.
Tkachuk delivered that presence, giving the Panthers a terrifyingly versatile crew of forwards. It’s not just about All-Stars like Tkachuk and Aleksander Barkov. Sam Reinhart is a heady center who can hurt you in big moments. Sam Bennett brings some offense along with grit and bone-rattling checks. When you need some dynamism, Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair can burn you in the blink of an eye.
You can certainly nitpick the Panthers’ defense, but this group is more viable than some might realize. When healthy and clicking, Aaron Ekblad is a stealth Norris candidate. Brandon Montour generates big offensive numbers, while Gustav Forsling holds things together. Radko Gudas is the rare nasty defenseman who can actually play. As overwhelmed as Marc Staal often looks in 2023, the talented Bruins and Maple Leafs teams haven’t really made Florida pay for putting him out there so often.
Of course, the biggest difference between the Panthers being a bubble team and playoff giant-killers has been the revitalization of Sergei Bobrovsky. No one should feel foolish if they didn’t see this coming. Let’s not forget that the Panthers themselves chose third-string journeyman Alex Lyon as their initial playoff starter, and they were justified in doing so.
After all, Bobrovsky is a two-time Vezina winner. While his contract is an albatross, he carries that $10 million cap hit because of some outstanding peak moments in the NHL. His current playoff save percentage (. 918) is really only slightly higher than his career average (. 915).
Maybe this resurgence ends against Carolina, but Bob & Co. have already taken down two well-equipped opponents.
Dallas Stars check all the boxes
Picture, in your head, a checklist for a contending team. You might be surprised to realize that the Dallas Stars boast many of the archetypal elements of a championship blueprint.
Star centers: Quietly, Roope Hintz was building a resume as a high-level pivot. That rumbling is now being broadcast over a loudspeaker, as Hintz is the top goal-scorer and point-getter of any player still active in the playoffs.
Lethal snipers: Maybe something’s off with Jason Robertson, as only two of his 12 playoff points have been goals. He earned the benefit of the doubt with his incredible 46-goal, 109-point season, and could explode if this relative slump thaws out.
Top defensemen: Miro Heiskanen may not be the flashiest defenseman, and he already sports a gnarly battle scar, but this run could clarify what should have always been obvious: he’s undeniably elite, and likely to add a Norris Trophy to his resume at some point.
Elite goalies: The Seattle Kraken were basically the first team to truly pierce Jake Oettinger’s armor, but that happens to just about every goalie. At the moment, he’s the goalie you’d pick from the final teams, and easily a top-10 netminder overall.
Proven head coach: There’s enough evidence to claim that Peter DeBoer is one of the best coaches in the NHL. Under Rick Bowness, the Stars could only really win one way. With a more modern bench boss, Dallas can play to its many strengths.
Two-way wizard: Joe Pavelski doesn’t just meet the “grizzled veteran who people want to finally win a Stanley Cup” quota. He’s still a flat-out elite, Selke-grade forward with some of the best net-front hands in the world.
Young up-and-comer: Wyatt Johnston slides into the role Chris Drury did for the Sakic-Forsberg Avalanche as a rising young star who figures to be a much bigger deal in no time.
Supporting cast: Jamie Benn flirted with a point-per-game season. Max Domi and Evgenii Dadonov give the Stars dangerous weapons outside of the top of the lineup, while Tyler Seguin hasn’t looked too out of place moonlighting on the top line.
Perhaps the Stars’ stars don’t shine the absolute brightest. They boast a brilliant option in just about every key spot, though, and it’s easy to envision it all coming together this year.
Golden Knights are goalie proof
From the regular season to the playoffs, the Vegas Golden Knights faced disruptions with goalies. Yet, if you look at the scoreboard most nights, you’d rarely be able to tell.
It’s strange to label the top team in the West as “sneaky,” however, that may apply to the Golden Knights. This is a team that travels well (26-7-8 road record during the regular season), generally stays out of the penalty box, and allows opponents to feed on low-quality scoring chances while clogging up the middle of the ice and locking down the prime real estate in front of their net.
By beating the Oilers, the Golden Knights highlighted their even-strength brilliance. That series also reminded opponents that Vegas can roll out some dangerous offensive weapons.
Jack Eichel ranks as the headliner, particularly with a banged-up Mark Stone. Edmonton never really found an answer for Eichel’s line — with Jonathan Marchessault feasting most of all.
As much as the Golden Knights’ sturdy defense comes down to its stout structure (and smart forwards such as Stone and Eichel), don’t forget about personnel. Both Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore grade out as No. 1 defensemen for plenty of NHL teams, giving Vegas a rare luxury.
Factor in high-quality depth and the Golden Knights are the sort of squad that can expose your weaknesses, or create ones you don’t even know you had.