Wednesday, April 11, 2012

PREVIEW: #3 Florida Panthers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils

So...are there any story-lines heading into this series?

So, it’s finally that time of year.  It’s time for the Stanley Cup playoffs.  As a Devils fan, I’m both excited and nervous at the same time.  The Devils might only be the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference, but they won 48 regular season games and picked up 102 points along the way.  I realize that this might be Martin Brodeur’s last shot at a fourth Stanley Cup Championship.  Even if Marty does play next season, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be able to carry a team through the playoffs.  He can do that this year, and hopefully the Devils will benefit from that.
Yet at the same time, we can’t help but remember the past and the failures of the Devils since the Prudential Center opened in the fall of 2007.  In the spring of 2008, the Devils were the #4 seed, but won just one of eight meetings against their eventual first round opponent, the New York Rangers, and that win came in a shootout.  The Devils lasted just five games that spring.  In the spring of ’09, as the 3rd seed, the Devils played the series from hell against the Hurricanes, but were only 1-3 against Carolina that season.  As the 2nd seed in 2010, they faced the Flyers, who they were 1-5 against, and lost to them.  This season, there are no excuses.  This is a very good Devils team, and they’re facing, well, let’s be honest: the worst team in the playoffs.
Before I talk about any negative stats regarding the Panthers, I think congratulations are in order.  After over a decade of failure and losing, the Panthers finally made it back to the playoffs and won their first-ever division title in the process.  They didn’t make life easy for their fans, but they definitely took a step in the right direction this season, even if they lose to the Devils in round one of the playoffs.
Now, let’s look at the raw numbers: the Florida Panthers won just 38 of 82 games.  They lost 18 games in overtime/shootout this season.  That essentially is like winning 9 extra games (in terms of points).  The Panthers are limping into the playoffs.  Despite their season finale, a 4-1 win over Carolina, they went just 2-3-5 in their last 10 games.  Their goal differential is a miserable minus-24 (203 goals for, 227 goals against).
But that doesn’t mean this won’t be a tough series for the Devils.  Make no mistake: it will be a very difficult series.  First of all, the Devils had just one “ROW” (regulation/overtime wins) over Florida in the regular season.  They lost two and won the other in a shootout.  Their most recent matchup was a 3-1 loss on February 11th, a game in which the Panthers led for most of the game, and simply trapped the Devils to sleep.  They can clog the neutral zone, force turnovers and score off their turnovers.

Ilya Kovalchuk drills Keaton Ellerby.  1 of 6 hits #17 on 12/13/11.

There will be several keys to this series.  First of all, the Devils will need to be patient.  They can’t get frustrated with the Panthers’ defense.  They’ll need to be smart, and not force the issue with the trap, because when you do that, you turn the puck over and you fall right into the…well, trap that the opposition is trying to frustrate you into.  If the Devils play smart and dump the puck in when the Panthers have the neutral zone clogged up, they’ll find success, because the Devils can play the dump-and-chase game.  They’re not the 1995 Red Wings, who had absolutely no answer to the trap.
The second key to the game will be to contain the Panthers’ top line.  Let’s face it: the Panthers’ fate will be determined by how their top line of Fleischmann-Weiss-Versteeg plays.  That line had success against the Devils in the regular season, so they’ll have to find an answer for them in the playoffs.  Pete DeBoer has several options.  He can try to match offense for offense, and play Zajac’s line against Weiss’ line and simply trade scoring chances with them; he can match Elias’ line, with veteran experience and Elias’ two-way ability; or he could even match the third line, with Ponikarovsky-Henrique-Clarkson as a “checking” line to try to shut down the Weiss line.  DeBoer has tried different things throughout the season.  Sometimes he matches top line against top line and sometimes he tries to shut down the opposition.

Devils vs. Panthers – by position

This year's Devils have a lot of firepower, but also a lot of depth.

It’s not secret: the Devils simply have more firepower than the Panthers.  The Devils have elite talent that can score on first chances, they have players who can cycle the puck, grind out shifts and can get secondary scoring chances and they can simply wear out their opposition.  In the regular season, they had seven players over 40 points, three 30-goal scorers and two others reached 20 goals.  That also doesn’t include Travis Zajac, who is one full season removed from back-to-back 60-point seasons.  The Devils also play in perhaps the best division in hockey, which features Lundqvist, Fleury and Bryzgalov in goal, so those offensive numbers are no fluke.  Entering the playoffs, the Devils have a healthy set of forwards, and that will cause the Panthers a lot of matchup problems.
As discussed earlier, Florida has a strong top line, but aside from Fleischmann, Weiss, Versteeg and their top offensive defensemen (Brian Campbell), the Panthers don’t have anyone over 35 points.  If the Devils manage to shut the Panthers’ top line down, they don’t really have anyone else to fall back on, so as far as forwards are concerned, the Panthers just not as deep as the Devils.
Advantage – Devils.
This is where things get interesting.  The Devils were the far better team defensively in the regular season (and again, they play in the tougher division), but the Panthers get more offensive production from their blue line than the Devils and they don’t benefit from the quality defensive forwards that the Devils have, so the Florida defense have a much more difficult job at times than the Devils’ defense.  Brian Campbell and Jason Garrison are potent offensive threats, and they’re the masterminds behind the Panthers’ dangerous power play as well, while Dmitry Kulikov and the veteran Ed Jovanovski will have to help the Panthers’ top D-men shut the Devils down.  If the Panthers want a chance in this series, their defense will have to be active and contribute in both ends of the ice.
The Devils don’t have Stevens, Niedermayer, Daneyko or Rafalski anymore, but it isn’t a bad group, either.  Volchenkov and Salvador are solid, underrated shutdown defensemen, and Mark Fayne has emerged as a solid D-man in his own end as well.  Whether or not Adam Larsson plays, the Devils still have two solid puck-movers in Andy Greene and especially Marek Zidlicky, and multiple puck-moving defensemen is something that has been the Devils’ weakness in recent playoff failures.  It’s not Stevens and Niedermayer, but it’s a decent group for sure.
Advantage – Panthers.

Marty doesn't need to "steal" this series, but saves like this
would be welcomed by his team.

There’s a lot more certainty from the Devils’ side here.  Martin Brodeur is going to start the series, and unless he either gets injured or is simply awful, he’ll likely play in every playoff game the Devils play this season.  Brodeur had a miserable start to the season, as he did in 2010-11, but he’s well-rested, thanks to the steady play of Johan Hedberg, and he’s been playing his best hockey lately.  His save percentage was .924 in February, .918 in March and he stopped 54 of 57 shots he faced in his two April starts (.947).  After the All-Star break, Marty went 17-9-2, 2.05 GAA, .921 save percentage, 3 shutouts.
Things aren’t set in stone yet for the Panthers, however.  The logical choice would be Jose Theodore, who had a solid season for Florida.  Theodore won 22 of the 53 games he played in, which isn’t a great ratio, but he won more games than any other Panthers goaltender this season nonetheless.  The other option is ex-Devil Scott Clemmensen.  “Clemmer” outplayed Theodore down the stretch and started the Panthers’ last game of the regular season against Carolina with the division title on the line.  Clemmensen performed in that game and he’s never lost to the Devils since leaving New Jersey in the summer of 2009.  He’s 4-0-0 in five games against his former team.
Advantage – Devils.
Special teams:
The Devils broke a modern-day NHL record with their dynamic (yes, dynamic) penalty killing unit this season.  They finished at 89.6%, and oh by the way, they added 15 shorthanded goals as well.  Think about this: the Devils allowed 27 power play goals against all season, scored 15 shorthanders, which gives them a net goals ratio of minus-12.  That’s simply incredible.  The Devils pressure the opposition and don’t let them get set up.  It’s been extremely effective thus far.  Their power play wasn’t as incredible early in the season.  The Devils’ power play operated around 10% for much of the pre-All-Star break part of the season, and they allowed 11 shorthanded goals during that span as well.  Kurtis Foster’s addition was a temporary fix, but now with Marek Zidlicky, the Devils’ power play has exploded in a good way.  They’ve fixed their shorthanded goals against problem, and now when they give up shorthanded chances, they have confident goaltenders to stop them.  The power play moved up 24 spots to 14th in the NHL, and finished with a respectable 17.2%.  With Zidlicky and Kovalchuk at the points, they move the puck well and control play with the man advantage.
The Panthers, on the other hand, have benefitted from a lethal power play all season.  They operated at an 18.5% mark all season, which was 7th best in the NHL.  They’ll give the Devils’ penalty kill a run for its money, as they keep penalty killers guessing with their puck movement.  Campbell and Garrison running the points is also a massive luxury that the Panthers have, and a forward unit of Fleischmann, Weiss and Versteeg compliments their defensemen very well.  Florida will rely heavily on the chances they get on their power play for sure.  Their penalty kill was nowhere near as good as their power play.  They killed 79.5% of their shorthanded situations, which is 25th best in the league.  They did score a pair of shorthanded goals against the Devils in the regular season, though.
Advantage – Devils.
The ability to bounce-back from a tough loss or adjust to the opposition will be another factor in this series, as it is in every non-sweep series for every team.  Both teams’ head coaches are in their first year with their team.  As you probably know, Devils coach Pete DeBoer spent the last three seasons before 2011-12 at the helm with the Panthers.

Relax, Kevin, it's just a game.  Riiight??

From Florida’s point of view, head coach Kevin Dineen, along with assistants Gord Murphy and ex-Thrashers head coach Craig Ramsay, have done a tremendous job lifting the Panthers into the playoffs for the first time since 2000.  Dineen did a fantastic job with AHL Portland before he got the promotion to the Panthers.  He spent six seasons as Portland’s head coach, and he won 61.6% of the games he coached there.  Dineen also experienced his share of playoff experience in the AHL.  Ramsay is one of the masterminds behind Florida’s power play and he won a Stanley Cup as a Tampa Bay Lightning assistant coach in 2004.
After three playoff-less seasons in Florida, DeBoer was hired as the Devils’ 200,000th head coach (okay, slight exaggeration) since Jacques Lemaire left the first time.  DeBoer has the Devils back in the playoffs after a modest one-year absence for the Devils.  DeBoer has successfully done what John MacLean failed to do last season: get the most (or anything) out of the Devils’ top offensive players.  DeBoer also brought in assistant Dave Barr, who has coached the Devils to a historic penalty kill.  Adam Oates is in his second season as the Devils’ power play coach and Larry Robinson continues to teach his mastery to the Devils’ defense.  Because of how dramatically better the Devils’ penalty kill is this season (not to mention the team in general) and the fact the Devils are better defensively with personnel that aren’t considered as potent defensemen, I’ll give the Devils a slight edge here.
Advantage: Devils.
The Devils and Panthers each won a pair of games against each other in the regular season.  Each team won one game at home and one on the road, and all of the games were close throughout.  But recently, the Panthers have been in free fall.  The main reason they hang on to a playoff spot is that they benefitted from 18 “loser points.”  The Devils, on the other hand, are playing their best hockey of the season.  Their first six-game winning streak of the season came in the regular season’s final six games.  They blasted some bad teams and beat some very good teams.  The Devils got better as the season went on and players learned the system DeBoer wanted, and the Panthers played well under Dineen’s system early, yet struggled late.  The Devils are peaking now.  Travis Zajac’s addition to the lineup came at the perfect time, as he got a few games under his belt before the playoffs.  The Devils like to dictate play and control the puck, yet they don’t sacrifice anything defensively in doing so.  If the Devils play smart and don’t let the Panthers shut their balanced offense down, the Devils will beat Florida.
Prediction: Devils in 5 games.  They’ll split the first two games in Florida and even though the Devils are a better road team than at home, they’ll win the two games in New Jersey and finish the Panthers off in Miami.