Fri Apr 13, 2012 Devils Panthers 7:00 PM TSN, NHLN-US, RDSI, MSG PLUS(HD)
Sun Apr 15, 2012 Devils Panthers 7:30 PM TSN, NBCSN, RDS, MSG PLUS(HD)
Tue Apr 17, 2012 Panthers Devils 7:00 PM TSN, NHLN-US, RDS, MSG PLUS(HD)
Thu Apr 19, 2012 Panthers Devils 7:00 PM TSN, NHLN-US, RDSI, MSG PLUS(HD)
Sat Apr 21, 2012 Devils Panthers 6:30 PM TSN, NHLN-US, RDSI, MSG PLUS(HD)
Tue Apr 24, 2012 Panthers Devils TV/TIME: TBD MSG PLUS(HD)
Thu Apr 26, 2012 Devils Panthers TV/TIME: TBD MSG PLUS(HD)
Okay, so no one has picked the Florida Panthers to first make the playoffs, let alone win their first Southeast Division title. Also almost no one will pick the Panthers to defeat a very good New Jersey team that ended up the sixth seed but actually collected eight more points than the Panthers.
The Panthers nearly gave away this shot at the postseason by managing to win just twice in their last 10 games, although, if you’re a Florida Panthers fan, you could point out that they collected points in seven of those ten games.
The Devils, meanwhile, are charging into the postseason on a six-game winning streak. Pete DeBoer has seen his team steadily improve throughout the season, piling up an impressive 21-9-3 record since the start of February. They have a potent offense, led by Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias, and a solid defense-by-committee playing in front of future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur.
This series will mark the first NHL playoff appearance for DeBoer, who spent three years behind the Panthers’ bench before landing in New Jersey last offseason. His counterpart, Kevin Dineen, is in his first NHL season but has done a bang-up job defining the Panthers’ identity after a summer that saw a massive turnover in personnel in the off season.
You don’t often hear “light it up” and “the Devils” in the same sentence, but there they were nestled comfortably in the middle of the league pack in terms of goals per game and power-play efficiency, and the team’s play has steadily improved as the season has progressed. The team has moved from thinking about where to go and what to do and simply playing the systems that came with the new coach. Kovalchuk is the spark plug with 37 goals, 10 with the man advantage. He was one of five 20-goal scorers and David Clarkson was able to chip in 30 goals from a third-line position. Clarkson also led the team with seven game winners. Perhaps the most underappreciated of all the Devils forwards is Elias, who was second on the team with 78 points. Throw in rookie of the year candidate Adam Henrique, who finished one point off the league lead for first-year players with 51 points and tied for the league lead with four short-handed goals, and you’ve got a team that can hurt you in lots of ways.
So who do the Panthers have? Well they have the a lot of horses as well including Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and while the team’s leader is on the blue line, Brian Campbell, but as a team they only ranked 27th in goals per game, so they will need to find a way to get their horses out of the barn if they’re going to stay in this series.
One stat that if they are able to continue their season statistics is that the Panthers were a rather remarkable 17-5-18 in one-goal games this season and the overtime/shootout loss totals were tops in the league. The Devils, meanwhile, ranked fourth in one-goal wins and were 24-7-6 in games decided by one goal. Bottom line is that both of these teams are used to playing tight games, which will ramp up the pressure. The Devils have been exceptional at protecting a lead and are 32-9-3 when scoring first and are 43-7-5 when leading or tied after two periods. They also boast the league’s top penalty-killing unit and allowed a league-low 27 power-play goals.
Strangely then, it is the Panthers that possess the more playoff seasoned team with Campbell, Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky and John Madden who all won a Cup two years ago in Chicago, and while Madden has two rings from his time in New Jersey. When you include Mikael Samuelsson who won a Cup in Detroit, Ed Jovanovski who has 69 postseason games to his credit and forward Sean Bergenheim was a key part of Tampa’s run to the Eastern Conference finals last spring. The Panthers are loaded with experience for a franchise that has little to speak of. While the Devils have holdovers in Brodeur, Elias and Petr Sykora from the Devils’ Cup days, the core of the team is relatively inexperienced when it comes to Cup experience.
You have to credit Kovalchuk for putting his contract situation all that behind him and assuming a key leadership role with this team. Coach DeBoer admitted he was surprised at how willing Kovalchuk was to do whatever it took to win, and that meant playing out of position on the right side while Parise stayed in his traditional spot on the left.
It’s hard to imagine that a guy with Kovalchuk’s pedigree has only appeared in just nine postseason games. He has played in just two playoff series in total and never played beyond the first round, and so in many ways he is an unknown when it comes to his ability to raise his game when it matters most. A motivating factor for Kovalchuk?
Throw out the nonsense of the seedings because the reality is the Panthers aren’t just underdogs in this series, they are an afterthought to many fans. Out of all eight playoff series, they would have to be considered the team least likely to advance to the second round. Of course, the Panthers might be perfectly suited to the David and Goliath role, and maybe, just maybe, that added motivation will be something that sends this series in a different direction than most people anticipate.
The Devils have their own baggage to carry, as well, they missed the playoffs last season for the first time in 14 years! That had to have helped open the door to changes in philosophy around the team.
While the Devils seem to hold a significant edge in terms of the firepower up front, there are still questions about the blue line. They have been without their best defenseman, Henrik Tallinder, for the last half of the season and blood clotting issues will keep him out of the playoffs. No other defenseman had more than four goals. While the addition of Marek Zidlicky from Minnesota at the trade deadline added a little to the blue line, the reality is the Devils won’t get much help from the back end when it comes to offense.
The Panthers, by comparison, are downright scary on the back end. Led by Campbell, who finished tied for second among all defensemen with 53 points and second among defensemen with 49 assists, the Panthers’ blue line is crucial to generating offense. Jason Garrison enjoyed a breakout year with 16 goals, third among NHL defensemen. Dmitry Kulikov, who had 27 points, is another lethal weapon from the back end. In a series that figures to be achingly tight, production from the blue line or lack thereof, this might be a deciding factor in who comes out on top.
Adam Henrique has been a revelation this season. When Travis Zajac went down early with a torn Achilles injury, Henrique, who had been sent to the AHL after an unimpressive training camp, returned and filled in admirably to say the least. Playing mostly with Kovalchuk and Parise, early on he played beyond his 22 years of age. How will he react to the pressures of his first NHL playoff experience? That could be a large question mark heading into Florida on Friday 13th of all nights!
It’s hard to imagine the emotions that Stephen Weiss after spending his entire career (637 regular-season games) all of them in Florida, he will get his first taste of playoff action. Weiss hit the 20-goal mark in his team’s finale and he needs to embrace this special moment if the Panthers aren’t going to be one-and-done.
Is this is the return of the rat in Florida? This is the Panthers’ first playoff appearance since 2000. What shouldn’t be expected is all that many wins, as the Panthers boast one of the weakest division-winning teams ever. Both teams picked up plenty of points via shootouts during the year, which won’t apply in the playoffs, but the Devils boast more high-end offensive talent led by Kovalchuk, Parise and Elias. Oh yeah, the also have a stingy team defense.
Logic dictates that this should be a cakewalk for the New Jersey Devils. But the playoffs and logic don’t always make sense.
Smyth: Devils in 6
Denstedt: Devils in 6
Pinder: Devils in 6
Diceman: Devils in 6
Blais: Devils in 7
Jameson: Devils in 6.
Donnelly: Devils in 6.