2023 Conference Finals Preview
A look at the third round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs
I always enjoy the Final Four of any sport's season, because it's the last stop before the whole enchilada is decided. No matter what the sport, that final round before the championship is immensely grand. In the NFL, it's the Conference Championship. In MLB, it's the League Championship Series, and in the NBA and NHL, it's the Conference Finals. The 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs are now down to the Final Four, with the two berths in this year's Stanley Cup Final being officially decided. Since the 2013-14 season, the Conference Finals have been contested between each of the four winners of the division brackets, with the East series pitting the Atlantic vs the Metropolitan, while the West series pits the Central vs the Pacific. The series are as follows:
Eastern Conference Final
The Southeast Division fan in me is literally salivating at this matchup. This year's Eastern Conference Final will feature the Carolina Hurricanes and the Florida Panthers in their first ever playoff meeting. I still remember when these clubs were rivals in the old Southeast Division between 1998 and 2013, especially since the Southeast was such a bad division at that time. The Southeast Division consisted of these two teams, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Washington Capitals, with the Atlanta Thrashers (later the Winnipeg Jets) joining the division in 1999-2000.
The Hurricanes are in the Final Four for the first time since 2019, and the fourth time in their last seven playoff appearances. Their path to the East Final saw them oust the New York Islanders in a six-game Metropolitan Semifinal, and win a five-game Metropolitan Final over the New Jersey Devils. As for the Panthers, they are the bigger story of the two. Funny, isn't it? When they won the Presidents' Trophy last year, we expected this run. This year, with their problems, we didn't expect them to get a playoff spot, yet they were gifted one due to the Penguins fizzling at the end, and they ran with it. The Panthers pulled off the ultimate upset over the Boston Bruins, and then crushed the Toronto Maple Leafs to reach the East Final for the first time since 1996.
Offensively, Carolina has been led by Sebastian Aho and Jordan Martinook, who enter the third round with 10 points each. Aho has five goals, tying him with Jesper Fast for the team lead. For the Panthers, it's Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe leading the way, with the pair scoring two of the team's four overtime goals during this run. Verhaeghe's winner came in Game Seven against Boston, while the other two goals were scored by Sam Reinhart and Nick Cousins, with the latter's goal sending the team to the Final Four. The Hurricanes are looking to make their third-ever appearance in the Cup Final, and their first since winning the Cup in 2006, while the Panthers are looking to make their second-ever Cup Final appearance, with 1996 being their only other appearance.
Western Conference Final
Out west, we have the Vegas Golden Knights and the Dallas Stars facing off in the Final Four, and this is not the first time they've crossed paths. We received this same Western Conference Final back in 2020--the bubble year, proving that the bubble does count and was totally for real. I definitely remember that series as the exact moment where my respect for the Golden Knights continued to wane, as there was a lot of nonsense centered on the team. Accusations of sabotaging Fleury, players chirping way too much, and Vegas fans blaming Lehner for the five-game loss, while ignoring the fact that the team scored only eight goals total in that series.
While I have wasted no time laughing at the Knights' failures, false bravado, and misfortunes, I do have to admit this: the team is hungry--immensely hungry. I do see some semblance of maturity among the team's culture; missing the playoffs for the first time in franchise history will do that. Vegas means business, they have proven that so far. Their road to the West Final: defeating the Winnipeg Jets in a five-game Pacific Semifinal, and ousting the Edmonton Oilers in a six-game Pacific Final. The Dallas Stars are also hungry, and they have definitely made up for their opening round exit last year. They defeated the Minnesota Wild in a six-game Central Semifinal, and they survived the Seattle Kraken's memorable run with a victory in Game Seven of the Central Final. This is Dallas' first West Final appearance since 2020, while Vegas is in the Final Four for the fourth time in their entire six-year history.
The Golden Knights enter the West Final with four players with double-digit point totals, but the leader in that whole team is the man who is enjoying his first-ever playoff appearance, Jack Eichel, with 14 points. Six of Eichel's points are goals, which ties him with Chandler Stephenson for the team lead, though Jonathan Marchessault's natural hat trick in Game Six has vastly increased his point total. As for Dallas, Roope Hintz leads with 19 points, with nine of them being goals, but the main talk has been Joe Pavelski, who has eight goals in this year's playoffs--all of them taking place in that series against Seattle. The Stars are looking to make their fourth Cup Final appearance since the team moved to Dallas, while Vegas is looking to reach the Cup Final for the first time since their historic inaugural season.
Per usual, the Prince of Wales Trophy and the Clarence Campbell Bowl will be awarded to the Eastern and Western Conference champions, respectively. Also per usual, we'll get that talk about the superstition of touching (or not touching) the trophies; a superstition that has long since been debunked. Last year, both teams touched those trophies, and I will admit, as a Colorado Avalanche fan, I was wondering if any of the Avs would actually touch the Bowl--Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog did. The Tampa Bay Lightning touched the Wales Trophy last year, so that was another year that killed the superstition. This is a unique Final Four this year; two of the teams have never won a Cup, and the two who have won have only done it one time each. Had Seattle won Game Seven, the Hurricanes would have been the only remaining Cup winners. Even so, we still could get a Cup Final with two teams looking to win their first one, which last occurred in 2018.
Regarding TV rights, this is the second year of the NHL's deal with ESPN and Turner Sports, and this year, the Eastern Conference Final will air on TNT, while ESPN and ABC will have the Western Conference Final as part of the annual rotation. Sportsnet will carry both series in Canada. The Final Four is locked and loaded, and I have a feeling that both series will be quite memorable!
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