Ex-division rivals Carolina and Florida clash in East final for a shot at the Stanley Cup

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes entered the Stanley Cup Playoffs facing challenges that made it unclear how long either might stick around.

The former Southeast Division peers are still here, halfway to winning the Cup as they enter the Eastern Conference final in what could be a bruising series. Game 1 of the best-of-seven series starts Thursday at Carolina which is in its second conference final in five seasons. It is Florida’s first trip this far since 1996.

The Panthers pushed their way into the postseason only to earn a date with Boston, which had just posted the greatest regular season in NHL history. The Hurricanes were facing injuries to key forwards that made a weakness exposed from past playoff stumbles even more acute.

“It’s amazing, but it’s pretty hard right now to think about accomplishments to this point,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “We want to keep going. We want to keep playing and that’s what we’re thinking about.”

Florida’s run was unexpected, with the Panthers using a six-game win streak to ultimately claim the last wild-card playoff spot. Yet since falling behind 3-1 to a Boston team with league records of 65 wins and 135 points, Florida has won seven of eight games, including the Game 7 overtime clincher against the Bruins and jumping out to a 3-0 series lead in beating Toronto in a five-game, second-round series.

As for Carolina, the Hurricanes — who had the league’s second-best record — pushed past the New York Islanders in six games and then beat New Jersey in five. That came after the last two postseasons ended in second-round exits on home ice.

“Obviously we’ve had really good teams the past five years and to be honest, I think (for) everyone — it’s been a little disappointing getting bumped in the second round for a few years in a row there,” Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce said.

“I remember some of the veteran guys on the 2019 team and (coach Rod Brind’Amour) saying you don’t know when or if you’ll ever even get back to the conference finals. So I kind of learned that hard way.”

The Hurricanes are favored to win this series, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, and currently hold a slight edge over Vegas, Dallas and obviously Florida to win the Stanley Cup as well. Carolina has gone 5-1 as a favorite so far in these playoffs, while the Panthers have been the betting underdog in every game so far — including Game 1 of this series.

CONNECTIONS

There are plenty of team ties, starting with three Staal brothers facing off: Florida’s Marc and Eric — a member of Carolina’s 2006 Cup winner — along with Carolina captain Jordan.

Then there’s Florida coach Paul Maurice, who was coach when the former Hartford Whalers franchise relocated to North Carolina in 1997. He coached Brind’Amour here when the Hurricanes made the Stanley Cup Final in 2002 as a franchise still gaining traction in a nontraditional market, then got Carolina back to the 2009 East final during a second stint in Raleigh.

“The thing that I notice most when I get there is how big the trees are. Because when we first started there, they were just planting them,” Maurice said of returning to Carolina. “But it’s not nearly as nostalgic as maybe you’d think. All three of my kids were born there, but I’m not driving by the old house.”

NOT HOW YOU START

The Panthers had eight first-period goals in the first two rounds, while the Hurricanes had only six.

After that, it gets wild: Florida had 13 second-period goals and a league-best 15 goals in the third period. Carolina has 20 goals in second periods of these playoffs, then 11 in third periods.

INJURY REPORT

The Hurricanes could get a boost with top-line forward Teuvo Teravainen nearing a return from a thumb injury that required surgery and has sidelined him since Game 2 of the first-round series against the New York Islanders. He has returned to practice.

Florida’s Ryan Lomberg (upper body) is a possibility for this series.

NEW WORLD

The conference final is a new world for many of the Panthers.

Marc Staal has played in 19 conference final games, Eric Staal has played in 11 and Brandon Montour has played in six. Most of the rest of the Panthers (not counting the injured Patric Hornqvist, who has appeared in eight) haven’t been this far in the postseason.

STAT WATCH

Carolina is averaging 3.64 goals in the playoffs, up from 3.20 in the regular season, behind a collective effort that produced a dozen different goal scorers against New Jersey. That included Jesper Fast, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Martin Necas and Jordan Martinook scoring three goals each.

For Florida, Matthew Tkachuk (five goals, 11 assists) ranks fifth in the postseason in points while the Panthers are averaging 3.33 goals per game.

In net, the Panthers have leaned on Sergei Bobrovsky (7-2, 2.82 goals-against, .918 save percentage) while the Hurricanes have had to deviate from a season-long rotation between Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta due to illnesses for both. Andersen (1.80 GAA, .931 save percentage) has won five times while starting the last six.

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AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Sunrise, Florida, contributed to this report.

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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