2023 NHL Conference Finals Preview: Sun Belt Teams Eye Shot at Stanley Cup

August 22, 2023

If you had all four of the remaining teams in your bracket, then good on you. The Panthers surprised all their doubters en route to two big upsets over Atlantic Division opponents. The Hurricanes defied major injuries to steamroll their way through fellow Metropolitan Division foes. The Golden Knights sent Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl home earlier than any Oilers fan would’ve hope. And the Stars have quietly put together an impressive postseason by overcoming adversity from tough matchups.

Talk about a modern “Bettman’s NHL” final four — all four teams are from the Sun Belt, and none of them were in their current locations before 1993. As we gear up for the conference finals, here’s how things break down.


Florida Panthers (Tipico odds to win series: +115) vs Carolina Hurrricanes (-135)

Storylines abound in this matchup. It was Mother’s Day over the weekend, so imagine being a mom who has three sons playing in the Eastern Conference Final. That’s what’s going on in the Staal household as brothers Eric and Marc from the Panthers take on Jordan’s Hurricanes. Eric will be trying to knock out the team that he won the Cup with in 2006 and captained from 2009-2016.

Florida bench boss Paul Maurice coached in Carolina for 11 seasons over two stints, including a trip to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final. Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour played for Maurice with the Hurricanes and got his start behind the bench as Maurice’s assistant.

All that backstory aside, this will be the first playoff series between the two clubs. The Cats are on a warpath. Matthew Tkachuk is leading the charge with 16 points in 12 games while also making a massive impact off the scoresheet with his chippy, physical play.

Relentless aggression has been the MO for these Panthers, upsetting the Bruins in seven games in the first round and then dominating the Maple Leafs across five games in the division finals.

Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe, and Brandon Montour have all been key pieces to their postseason puzzle, but the Panthers are also getting tons of depth contribution from players like Anthony Duclair, Nick Cousins, and Radko Gudas.

Sergei Bobrovsky seems to have regained his Vezina Trophy-winning form between the pipes recently, which is the biggest key of all. The fact that it’s taken this long to mention the likes of Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad should signify just how deep the Panthers are right now.

Momentum is a huge factor in the playoffs, and Florida seems to have that as the East’s eighth seed.

But the Hurricanes know all about momentum, which they’ve been building over their past five consecutive postseason appearances. It hasn’t mattered that Andrei Svechnikov suffered a season-ending injury at the tail end of the regular season, nor has it mattered that Teuvo Teravainen got knocked out during the first round and missed the last round with an injury of his own (he may return at some point during this series).

It’s a next-man-up mentality in Carolina, and everyone’s tugging at the rope. Jordan Martinook is the perfect example of that, as he tallied 10 points against the Devils after being elevated to fill Teravainen’s place among the top two lines. Brent Burns anchors a rugged D corps that can also chip in offensively, and the 1-2 punch of Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta are sturdy in net.

Without too many holes on either side, it’s shaping up to be a tight battle at 5-on-5, so special teams could be the deciding factor. The Canes are an NHL best 27-for-30 on the penalty kill this postseason and the Panthers’ power play has been spotty.

The Cats are 6-1 on the road with six straight wins and have won all four of their overtime games. The Canes are tough at home too, with a 5-1 record and have also won all three of their overtime games so far.

This has the makings of a knock-down, drag-out fight for seven games.

Pick: Panthers (+111)

Dallas Stars (+115) vs Vegas Golden Knights (-135)

The Stars have been slept on for much of the postseason, and that’s proven to be a mistake. They have all the tools to win the whole thing. A forward group with superstar talent complemented by trusty depth contributors. A sturdy defense corps that can also get on the scoresheet. And maybe most importantly, a standout goaltender in Jake Oettinger.

Roope Hintz is having a Conn Smythe-caliber postseason, as he leads the team in points with 19 (that’s more playoff points this season than everyone not named Connor McDavid). Jason Robertson lit it up in the goal column during the regular season, but 10 of his 12 points in 13 playoff games have been assists. He can still break out and fill the net in the Conference Finals.

Joe Pavelski, Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Max Domi are all at nearly a point-per-game pace, and every single skater has registered at least one point this postseason. Miro Heiskanen is showing why he’s one of the league’s most gifted defenseman, producing at both ends of the ice.

And then there’s Oettinger, who is the only goalie of the four remaining teams to record a shutout in these playoffs. They’re a tough out.

But so are the Golden Knights, who breezed past the Jets in five games in the opening round and then — to the surprise of many — defeated the Oilers in six games. The Oilers have among the most talented rosters in the league, so on paper, Las Vegas can beat anyone.

Each of the strengths touted for the Stars could be said for the Knights as well. All four forward lines can score. Jack Eichel, Chandler Stephenson, and Jonathan Marchessault have the star power to put up big numbers, but the likes of William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, and Ivan Barbashev round out a stellar supporting cast.

The defense is solid, with Shea Theodore, Alec Martinez, and Alex Pietrangelo all being able to match up with the opponent’s top lines. The only question mark would be in net with Laurent Brossoit being hobbled by injury, though Adin Hill backstopped his squad to three wins in his four starts against the Oilers in Brossoit’s absence.

I love this matchup as a hockey fan because it’ll be tightly contested, but as a sports bettor, it’s a tough call. So, we’ll come full circle. Don’t sleep on the Stars.

Pick: Stars (+115)

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Grant Leonard
Grant Leonard is a former junior B ice hockey player, and a current believer that the Washington Capitals’ aging core still has another Cup run left in the tank. Grant’s owned and operated his own marketing agency since shortly after graduating from Virginia Tech in 2014. After years of hammering puck lines and leading his fantasy football league as Commissioner, Grant started writing about sports betting and the casino gaming industry in 2021.