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Previewing the Stanley Cup Conference Finals

Four teams remain in the race to win the Stanley Cup, and none of them are above the 49th parallel—or even, like, the 39th one …

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

About a month from now, when two more NHL playoff rounds have been settled, Lord Stanley’s Cup will be white-gloved to its latest rightful home in one of four hockey hotbeds: Raleigh, Dallas, Las Vegas, or the fringe of the Florida Everglades. Welcome to this year’s Sunbelt Cup! Where the ice gets chippy while the fans stay happy, appreciative of both the chill inside a hockey arena in early summer and the extreme coolness of witnessing a deep playoff run.

Few prognosticators foresaw this particular postseason alignment of hockey teams. The Boston Bruins, for example, had a record-breaking regular season but were knocked out in the first round. Last year’s Cup champions, the Colorado Avalanche, also fizzled out early, as did a pair of teams, the New York Rangers and the Edmonton Oilers, who both made it to the conference final last season and had been playing great hockey for much of this year. The Toronto Maple Leafs lulled their fans into the rarefied happiness that comes with winning a playoff round—only to be immediately gentleman’s swept. Some markets accustomed to hosting May and June hockey—D.C., Pittsburgh, Chicago—didn’t even make the postseason cut.

Instead, four teams remain, each of them from places where you could get away with a light windbreaker in January, and all of them with a legitimate case to advance to the Cup. (This is in stark contrast to the other NHL news of the day: the failure of the Arizona Coyotes to get a public referendum vote passed in favor of a proposed entertainment district in Tempe, threatening the team’s future in the state once again.) The Florida Panthers may have surprised the mighty Bruins and the haughty Leafs, but they were also good enough last season to win the Presidents’ Trophy. Their opponent, the Carolina Hurricanes, have lost three of their most productive offensive players to injury, yet have plowed ahead since.

Out west, the Vegas Golden Knights have taken care of business and demonstrated why they’ve gotten to at least the semifinals in four of their six seasons of existence. They’ll have one hell of a challenger in the Dallas Stars, who are anxious to return to the Cup Final after falling short in the 2020 NHL bubble and who have been winning in spite of a fallow period for one of their top players. Below, a brief update on where all these teams stand halfway through this year’s quest for the Sunbelt Cup, in ascending order of average monthly high temperatures in the months of May and June.

Carolina Hurricanes

Year of origin: 1997 (or 1980, going back to when they were the Hartford Whalers)

Average high temperature in May and June: 82.5 degrees

Stanley Cup Final appearances: Two

Stanley Cups: One (2006)

On the sunny side of the street: Carolina came into the playoffs with a whole bunch of injuries and without much fanfare—and then the team just kept rolling along. Despite being sans Max Pacioretty, Andrei Svechnikov, and Tuevo Teravainen, the Hurricanes have found goal scoring from 14 different players over the course of 11 playoff games. The way they calmly dispatched the young ’n’ hungry New Jersey Devils—who had looked so tricky against the Rangers—was a sign that this team has real playoff mettle.

Lurking in the shadows: Two of the Hurricanes’ top three scorers from last season are sidelined, and that’s just a portion of the team’s losses. Teravainen is expected to return during this series, and the Canes have done an exceptional job filling the voids, but with two full rounds of playoff hockey still to come, can that really last?

Best win of the playoffs: After a game in which the New York Islanders scored the fastest four goals in NHL postseason history against them, Carolina rebounded with a decisive 5-2 win and have been cruising ever since.

Player(s) to watch: If you’re a Conn Smythe bettor type who is looking for a value play, defenseman Brent Burns is a fun one to keep an eye on: Partnered with Jaccob Slavin, he logs hella ice time; has long been appreciated by awards voters, and has ably handled two high-octane offensive teams in the Islanders and Devils. With five goals and five assists in 11 games, Sebastian Aho is a front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Florida Panthers

Year of origin: 1993

Average high temperature in May and June: 87 degrees

Stanley Cup Final appearances: One

Stanley Cups: Zero

On the sunny side of the street: Amid all the surprise about Florida defeating the record-setting Bruins in seven games in the first round, it’s easy to forget that the Panthers earned a Presidents’ Trophy of their own just last year. The Panthers may have squeaked into the postseason by just one point on the strength of a 6-1-1 record to close out the regular season, but their success didn’t come from nowhere.

Lurking in the shadows: The Panthers’ power play has been showing signs of improvement this postseason but could have some trouble against Carolina’s excellent penalty kill.

Best win of the playoffs: Coming back from being down 3-1 to the Bruins and winning Game 7 in overtime was a huge one, but don’t sleep on the way Florida took hold of the Maple Leafs in the second round and refused to let go. In Florida’s third game of that matchup, the team responded to Leafs goals twice and ultimately won in overtime to establish a 3-0 series lead.

Player(s) to watch: Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, 34, may not be the tip-top netminder he once was, but he has lots of playoff experience and recorded 50 saves in the second-round clincher. Following several years of too-early playoff exits, the Panthers traded for Matthew Tkachuk last summer, and the move has paid dividends: Not only is Tkachuk a Hart Trophy finalist, but he’s also a personable character who seems invigorated by being on the perpetually overlooked Panthers. Aleksander Barkov has 34 shots this postseason, but they haven’t been going in the net; the Panthers captain has scored on fewer than 6 percent of his shots in the postseason, a far cry from his career average of 13.8 percent. If he were to revert to his usual form, watch out.

Dallas Stars

Year of origin: 1993 (or 1967, if we count the Minnesota years!)

Average high temperature in May and June: 88 degrees

Stanley Cup Final appearances: Three

Stanley Cups: One (1999)

On the sunny side of the street: The Stars roster features a whole lot of, well, once and future stars, from Joe Pavelski to Tyler Seguin to Jamie Benn to defenseman Ryan Suter, but it’s some of the team’s lesser-known names who have shined particularly bright in recent weeks. Roope Hintz is second among NHL players in postseason points, with 19 in 13 games, while rookie Wyatt Johnston—who has been living at Pavelski’s house—has scored twice in the team’s past three games.

Lurking in the shadows: Unlike some of the other teams remaining in the playoffs, who have finished off their early series in businesslike fashion, the Stars have had a more chaotic past few weeks, needing six and seven games to advance.

Best win of the playoffs: When CNN puts the word “pulsating” in a headline about a Game 7, you’ve definitely made an impression!

Player(s) to watch: Goalie Jake Oettinger might be the most reliable goaltender remaining in the postseason, and yet even he was pulled twice during Dallas’s series against the Seattle Kraken. Jason Robertson, who led the Stars in scoring this season, has been snakebitten in the past few weeks, with just two goals. Joe Pavelski returned from injury a few weeks back to contribute a rooster trick against Seattle. And 23-year-old offensive-defenseman Miro Heiskanen has continued to thrive despite taking a slap shot to the face that left it difficult for him to sleep or eat for days.

Vegas Golden Knights

Year of origin: 2017

Average high temperature in May and June: 96 degrees

Stanley Cup Final appearances: One

Stanley Cups: Zero

On the sunny side of the street: The regular-season Western Conference champion Golden Knights have been in the NHL for only six years, but they’ve gotten to, or past, the conference final in three of those. With the loudest arena in the league, Vegas knows how to put on a show. The team’s defensive corps is one of the deepest around, and fresh off a series in which they kept dynamic Oilers duo Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s contributions to a dull roar.

Lurking in the shadows: The Golden Knights are now on their fourth goalie this season. Adin Hill has been solid, but the team will need continued production from its skaters to support him in net. Also, Dallas head coach Pete DeBoer will be looking for revenge against the Knights, who fired him last season.

Best win of the playoffs: You don’t really want to be blowing 4-1 leads in the postseason, but if you do, winning the game in double overtime is a decent way to make up for it.

Player(s) to watch: Captain Mark Stone returned from back surgery this season to become the quintessential playoff performer: gritty and, with 12 playoff points, prolific. Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who captained the St. Louis Blues to a Cup in 2019, leads the team in time on ice and handshake-line drama. And Jack Eichel’s first career appearance in the playoffs has been a crackling debut: six goals and eight assists in 11 games. The center came to Vegas in 2021 from Buffalo and has been playing like a guy with something to prove. Finally, keep an eye on the Golden Knight itself: That guy sure knows how to dazzle.