One team excited to be here, the other desperate to advance
The Florida Panthers just ended a ten-year playoff drought, a NHL record. The team they will be facing in the first round, the New Jersey Devils, are trying to break a slide of their own.
New Jersey has not won a playoff series since 2007, and the club has not advanced farther than the second round since the Stanley Cup year of 2003. While these shortcomings don’t compare to a ten-year playoff absence, the lack of accomplishment is glaring for an organization that has been an emblem of consistent success for the past 15 years. If the Panthers are a team just happy to be at the party, the Devils are feeling the pressure to go home with the supermodel.
The two teams begin their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal matchup Friday night in Florida. The Panthers have the home ice advantage despite earning 8 fewer points than New Jersey due to the NHL’s seeding system, where all division winners are guaranteed a top-3 seed. The Devil’s have to like this matchup, despite losing the season series (1-2-1). The Panthers are a team that struggled down the stretch, winning just 2 of its final 10 games. They benefited from competing in a weak Southeast Division, and went just 8-14 against Eastern Conference playoff teams. If you combine both regulation and overtime losses, this is a team that more often left the rink as the loser than the winner.
That being said, there are reasons this team tallied 94 points this season. Revamped under new head coach Kevin Dineen, the Panthers have a roster that blends talent and experience well. Perhaps players like Dineen’s system, or maybe its the favorable climate; whatever the reason General manager Dave Tallon has made some very effective free agent signings over the past 2 offseasons. Although this group as a whole has never embarked on the bearded march, a lot of these guys have playoff experience on past teams. Brian Campbell is a North-South defenseman who advances the puck very well, and when paired with Ed Jovanovski forms a very solid starting blue line. Mikael Samuelsson, Tomas Kopecky, and Marco Sturm all have long playoff resumes. Devils fans will recognize 4th liner John Madden on this team, a guy who killed penalties in black and red for 9 years. Tallon has done a commendable job meticulously tinkering with this roster, and he deserves a lot of the credit for the organization’s 22-point jump in the standings from a year ago.
Florida’s “X-factor” in this series is the entire second line. Throughout the year firstliners Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss, and Tomas Fleischmann have provided the majority of the offense. If this group is forced to shoulder the load, and New Jersey finds a way to shut them down, Florida will be in big trouble. To have any chance the Panthers will need some balance.
New Jersey is favored by most to win this series. The Devils played in an Atlantic Division that set an NHL record with four 100-point teams (The Central Division achieved the same feat this year, interestingly). This year the Devils bring a more balanced attack than years past. Credit new Head Coach Pete DeBoer for an up-tempo forecheck. Zach Parise answered any injury questions by playing in all 82 games, Ilya Kovalchuk actually looks like a $100 million man, and we’ve witnessed a career year from David Clarkson. Travis Zajac has returned from a torn Achilles tendon at just the right time, and the big Minnesotan gives NJ a formidable top-6. Additionally, this is a team that is still very responsible defensively, good for 8th in the league in goal prevention. They also boast the NHL’s best penalty kill.
Not only did they get the matchup they wanted, the Devils are riding a season high 6-game win streak into the first round. Pete DeBoer can’t ask for anything more.
“If you could write a script entering the playoffs, obviously 6 games in a row is what you want. We’re confident, scoring some goals, and feel good about where we are at.”
That was the first year head coach coming off a 4-2 win in last Saturday’s season finale. He sounded like a guy who knew he had the better hockey team, with a hall-of-fame goalie in net. Plus, there is another advantage the Devil’s have in this series, and it exists off the ice. Pete DeBoer knows this Florida Panther team pretty well. That is because he coached them the past three seasons. Yes, the roster is much different. Still, he knows a lot of the Panther players, their tendencies, and where they like the puck. DeBoer promises there will be no emotion involved in opening up the playoff run in a building where he was fired just a season ago. Just business.
New Jersey’s “X-factor” is rookie center and Calder cup contender Adam Henrique. While the Ontario native did lead all rookies in points, he mustered just two goals in the last 25 games. Many wonder if the return of Travis Zajac and the consequential relegation to the third line accounts for Henrique’s lack of production, having benefited from playing alongside Parise and Kovalchuk. However, he continues to compete, featuring good puck possession, sharing the bulk of his ice time with Alexei Ponikarovsky and Dainius Zubrus. However, New Jersey will need Henrique to step up his playmaking, because 2 lines won’t get it done in the playoffs. Parise, Kovalchuk, and Elias will do what they do, but the Devils will need secondary and even some tertiary scoring to advance.
In the end, New Jersey has the momentum, the firepower, and the goaltender. This is a team that doesn’t mind starting on the road, free from the pressure of protecting home ice. Martin Brodeur will keep them in every game. They will find a way to contain Florida’s top line, and the Panthers will disappear as fast as their namesake is disappearing from the Florida Everglades. Devils in 6.