Sunday, April 8, 2012

Devils open the playoffs Friday night in Florida

After much suspense over who the Devils would wind up playing in the first round, it was finally determined last night that the Panthers would indeed be New Jersey's first-round opponent, by virtue of their 4-1 win over Carolina that clinched the Southeast division in the season's final hours. Florida finished 38-26-18 for 94 points during the season, while the Devils finished 48-28-6 for 102 points, yet that was only good for fourth place in a brutal Atlantic division. Each team beat the other twice in their four head-to-head meetings during the season, but the Panthers got one extra point due to a shootout loss.

Aside from the on-ice matchups, there is plenty of off-ice drama and intrigue given that almost a year ago, Devils coach Pete DeBoer was fired by the Panthers after three years in Florida. Not to mention the Panthers have former Devils Scott Clemmensen (who'll almost surely play a role in this series sooner or later) and John Madden on their side in this series. Plus the Panthers' last trip to the playoffs in 2000 was cut short thanks to a sweep by the eventual Stanley Cup champ Devils. We also have former Panthers Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter - picked up off waivers early this season.

However, this series will be determined on-ice. To that end, I'm not going to lie. Despite the seeding and the Devils' own lack of recent playoff success, they should beat the Panthers. After years of hearing complaining and moaning from Devil fans about how we always got the worst matchup the last few years, there are no excuses this time. Offensively, the Devils are clearly a deeper team as evidenced by their 216 goals this season, 21 more than the Panthers. While we have three 30-goal scorers and two other twenty-goal scorers, the Panthers' leading scorer is Tomas Fleischmann, who paced the team in both goals (27) and points (61)...ten goals and twenty-two points fewer than Devils' leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk.

Defensively, the Devils have also allowed 14 fewer goals than the Panthers (195-209) with a tremendous improvement in our second-half play compared to the first half of the season. And in goal, we have future HOF'er Martin Brodeur, while their goaltending situation is a bit unsettled after starter Jose Theodore lost his last seven games before the playoffs - and Clemmensen won two out of three down the stretch with the only blemish being a SO loss at Detroit. Not to mention despite our own lack of success in the postseason, we still have more experience than the Panthers as a whole, and DeBoer certainly has been around the block more than former NHL'er Kevin Dineen has - as a coach anyway.

Given all that, you would think I'm making the case it will be an easy series. Not so, especially if you watched the teams' four matchups this season. Of those, I attended two and watched one of the Florida games and saw just how closely the Panthers played us in each game. Yes, the Devils didn't have top centerman Travis Zajac for the majority of the season, and as DeBoer himself pointed out in the postgame last night, it's not a coincidence the Devils are going into the postseason with their longest winning streak of the season now that Zajac's back in the lineup.

Still, the Panthers do present some problems for us - starting in goal. While I have no great fear of Theodore, he was having a nice season until hitting a pothole late. My main fear however, is seeing Clemmensen at some point in the series given that he always gets fired up to play us - evidenced by his 4-0 record with a 2.05 GAA and .937 save percentage in five career starts against the Devils. That includes the two teams' final matchup in February, where Clemmensen made 27 saves including some key ones early as the Panthers eventually shut us down in a dreary 3-1 loss. Florida's blueline can also present problems for us, given the threat guys like vet Brian Campbell (49 assists) and breakout player Jason Garrison (16 goals) can present as well as young Dmitri Kulikov (28 points in 58 games, and recently returned off injury). In fact, Campbell and Garrison are the Panthers' fourth and fifth best point scorers on the season.

However, it's their top three point scorers that may prove to be our biggest issue - Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg. Obviously the Panthers have heard the rap about being a one-line team before, and statistically it's true given the discrepancy between their point totals...61, 57 and 54 respectively, compared to their next highest forward Tomas Kopecky with just 32 in 80 games played. Actually, oft-injured vet Mikael Samuelsson may be their biggest threat up front outside of the top three with 28 points in 48 games. However, for the most part it really is true that if you stop the top line you can shut down the Panthers.

By no means is stopping their top line an easy task this season, though. Certainly it hasn't been for us, as the Devils gave up seven goals to that line in just four games, including all four in the teams' dubious first game this season in late November. That night, the Devils took a 3-0 lead in DeBoer's return to Florida, only to lose the lead in regulation, as Fleischmann scored the tie-breaking goal with just over two minutes left to give the Devils their worst loss of the season in many ways. New Jersey doesn't exactly have the shutdown defensemen of seasons past, though Bryce Salvador has been a revelation in his return to the lineup this season after missing all of last year due to injury. Not to mention Marek Zidlicky has played top-pairing minutes and also been a huge addition since we acquired him just before the trading deadline - and well after our season series with the Panthers ended.

Ironically, while the Panthers as a team don't have as much playoff experience as the Devils, many of their individual players do given that guys like Campbell, Versteeg and Kopecky were part of the Blackhawks' championship team just two summers ago and were imported by ex-Hawks GM Dave Tallon to give a young team some veteran stability, along with ex-Wing Samuelsson and of course, Madden who was a late-season addition and only played in the Panthers' final game against us. Weiss is the team's longest-tenured Panther, having been around for each of the team's playoff-less seasons before now. However, after breaking their decade plus long playoff drought, and winning their first-ever division title, the Panthers will clearly be pumped up to go into the postseason despite their recent string of losses to bad teams that nearly derailed their postseason train entirely.

I admit I kind of rolled my eyes when the crowd at the Rock started chanting 'We want the Cup!' as the final seconds ticked down on the regular season. I was just thinking to myself, I'd take a first-round win and not embarassing ourselves in the second round this year, even that's more than we've done since 2003 and would represent progress - though guys like Brodeur and Patrik Elias don't have many chances left. And captain Zach Parise may not be around for next season. So in some ways there is urgency to get things done in the playoffs this year. And with a beatable Panthers team coupled by an intriguing East draw where the 7-8 seeds have winning records this season against the 1-2 seeds, and the 4-5 series will be a war, you never know who could wind up making a deep run in the playoffs. Why not us?

I'll say we win this series in 6, finally giving us a series win at the Rock...if we don't at least win this series, there'll be major reprecussions on more than one front, especially since this is by far our deepest team of the last few years. Florida's happy to be here, but the Devils need to do more than show up and punch out after less than two weeks this time around.

First Round Schedule:
Friday, April 13, 2012: Devils at Florida, 7 p.m.
Sunday, April 15, 2012: Devils at Florida, 7:30 p.m.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012: Florida at Devils, 7 p.m.
Thursday, April 19, 2012: Florida at Devils, 7 p.m.
*Saturday, April 21, 2012: Devils at Florida, 6:30 p.m.
*Tuesday, April 24, 2012: Florida at Devils, TBD
*Thursday, April 26, 2012: Devils at Florida, TBD

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