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Eastern Conference first round set for Stanley Cup Playoffs

The Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Florida Panthers 6-4 Thursday night, clinching the Metropolitan Division. The Eastern Conference first-round matchups in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs are now set. Here’s what you need to know:

  • The Hurricanes finished with a 52-21-9 record. This is their sixth division title in franchise history.
  • With their 5-4 win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Boston Bruins finished with a 65-12-5 record, atop the Eastern Conference standings. This year was Boston’s 27th division title in franchise history.
  • The Western Conference matchups will be decided Friday. The Colorado Avalanche have a chance to pass the Dallas Stars for the Central Division title when they face the Nashville Predators.
  • The 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs start on April 17.

Eastern Conference first-round matchups

The Athletic’s instant analysis:

Biggest, smallest surprises

The Eastern Conference matchups came down to the wire, after jostling in the standings over the last few weeks.

The big surprise is Pittsburgh missing out entirely, after a putrid deadline and disappointing end to the season. A loss to Chicago on Monday ended their season, and gave the Islanders the opening they needed to return to the postseason.

The least surprising is Boston finishing first in the division (and the league) after such an outstanding year — don’t forget, this was a team many doubted after they started the year with so many key injuries. — Goldman

Playoff storylines

There’s a lot to like with this year’s matchups. Boston’s the team to beat, but Florida has some disruptor potential after pushing their way back into the playoff picture.

The Hurricanes and the Islanders is bound to be a series filled with defensive structure, and the big question will be whether Canes have enough finish to go up against one of the league’s top goalies in Ilya Sorokin. The Devils make their return to the playoffs, facing off against the Rangers for the first time in 11 years. There’s a ton of connections between these two clubs, from their competing rebuilds and former top picks, and only one can reach Round 2. — Goldman

Most anticipated matchup

Maybe the most intriguing is the one that’s been set for some time. It’s a rematch of last year’s Round 1 series between the Lightning and Maple Leafs.

The Lightning want to make their fourth straight return to the Final, but their end of the season was far from impressive. Toronto, on the other hand, needs to break the curse. After numerous moves at the deadline, the Maple Leafs have bolstered their defense to try and balance some weaknesses in net.

Each team has had months to plan for this series — does that help or hurt if the focus is so narrow on one opponent? Did the Maple Leafs learn enough from the Lightning’s ‘whatever it takes’ vibe from their last matchup?

The pressure is on both teams, for different reasons, making for a series that’s bound to get a ton of attention. — Goldman

Required reading

(Photo: Sam Navarro / USA Today)

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