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Ranking the 4 potential Stanley Cup Final matchups

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Now that the NHL's conference final pairings are set, it's time to ponder the possible Stanley Cup Final showdowns they could yield.

Before we get there, we do have some compelling storylines in the upcoming round. For example, both series feature a head coach facing one of their former teams. Dallas Stars bench boss Peter DeBoer is going up against the Vegas Golden Knights, who he led from 2019-20 to 2021-22.

Meanwhile, Florida Panthers head coach Paul Maurice faces the Carolina Hurricanes, who he guided for parts of 11 seasons over two separate stints, along with a pair of campaigns with their initial incarnation, the Hartford Whalers.

While that won't be a factor once we get to the Cup Final, there should still be plenty of narratives in the decisive series. Each remaining club has top-end talent and has been captivating to watch for one reason or another.

Here's how we rate the four potential scenarios:

4. Stars vs. Panthers

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This would be the least appealing simply because it involves the two worst teams of the four. The Stars finished second in the Central Division at 47-21-14, while the Panthers snuck in with the second Eastern Conference wild-card berth and placed fourth in the Atlantic at 42-32-8.

Florida pulled off two monumental feats in getting to this point by dispatching the record-setting Boston Bruins in seven games and eliminating the Toronto Maple Leafs in five. Would it be fun to see if the lowest seed in a conference can win the Cup for the first time since the Los Angeles Kings in 2012? Sure. The Panthers are true underdogs (undercats?), and they've been a great story this spring. But this matchup as a whole doesn't elicit as much excitement as the others.

The Stars do have their share of skill. They boast the electric Jason Robertson, the current leader in the Conn Smythe Trophy race in Roope Hintz, rookie sensation Wyatt Johnston, and the ageless Joe Pavelski, who'll turn 39 in July. Pavelski is looking to win the Cup for the first time, but he's been terrific this season. So while his pursuit of that elusive championship is a storyline, this may not be the veteran forward's last dance.

3. Panthers vs. Golden Knights

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No matter who prevails in Round 3, the Cup Final will feature two teams from so-called "untraditional" hockey markets. Of course, that term has lost meaning now that the Stars, Hurricanes, and several other southern-based and/or western-situated squads have won titles.

However, the fact remains that neither the Golden Knights nor the Panthers have ever hoisted Lord Stanley's mug, so this pairing would guarantee a first-time champion. Both Florida and Vegas have been right on the doorstep, reaching the final in 1996 and 2018, respectively. The Colorado Avalanche swept the Panthers in Florida's third season in the league, while the Washington Capitals took care of the Golden Knights in five games in Vegas' inaugural campaign.

There are other reasons this could be a watchable series. For example, the Panthers and Golden Knights both have ultra-versatile, two-way wizards in the forms of Matthew Tkachuk and Mark Stone. It could be enjoyable to watch them battle in the corner. But the on-ice product as a whole won't be quite as fun as the two other possibilities.

2. Golden Knights vs. Hurricanes

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On paper, this is the best possible matchup as it features two top seeds. But the games aren't played on paper. The Golden Knights won the Pacific, but that's the NHL's worst division. Vegas got three more points than Dallas during the regular season, but the Stars' plus-67 goal differential ranked second in the league, while their hypothetical opponents here sat ninth at plus-43.

The Golden Knights are also an average possession team, having ranked 16th in five-on-five xGF% during the regular season. That being said, Jack Eichel's stellar play in his first crack at the playoffs has been a delight, and Vegas remains a talented group blessed with depth almost everywhere. It's a shame injured Hurricanes forward Max Pacioretty won't be able to take part in this potential final against his old squad, but there would be a lot to like about the scenario nonetheless.

Carolina goaltender Frederik Andersen and Golden Knights netminder Adin Hill have both been dominant in these playoffs. Andersen is excelling after overcoming numerous past injuries, and Hill has stepped in admirably amid ailments sustained by his partners in the Vegas crease.

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1. Hurricanes vs. Stars

This one's the most appealing for several reasons. Firstly, Carolina led the NHL in expected goals for percentage at five-on-five during the regular season, and Dallas is on top in that category so far in this postseason. These are two superb possession teams, and that combination of play-driving squads makes this possibility slightly more tantalizing than the Hurricanes' alternative.

Sebastian Aho and his teammates are also looking to win it all without (and for) Andrei Svechnikov, whose campaign ended in March due to a torn ACL. Svech's absence has taken some oomph out of the Carolina offense, but it's also made the team even more of a sentimental favorite. The Hurricanes and Stars are both elite defensive teams, too. While that could hurt the ratings, it would add to the recipe for what would be the best Cup Final outcome.

(Analytics source: Natural Stat Trick)

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