This first-round series that opens in Sunrise, Fla., tonight should be a mismatch, except the Panthers won the season series from the Devils, except the Devils were rarely as good as their forwards should make them, and except that, often, defense wins in the playoffs.
Nevertheless, it will take a monumental flop for the Devils to fail to end their run of first-round fiascos. But this team has flopped before. Their crop of star forwards so outweighs any edge the Panthers have on the backline they should be honing their one-touch, tic-tac-toe play that could lift the playoffs above clutch-and-grab, chop-and-hack.
The temptation would be to lay it all on Ilya Kovalchuk, except that there’s Zach Parise, too. Or, on Patrik Elias, the Devils’ all-time leading playoff (and regular season) scorer, except there’s Travis Zajac at center, too.
The Devils’ depth is what the Panthers, who have snapped their NHL record 10-year playoff absence, won’t be able to handle. Here’s a closer look at this series:
The Devils’ Big Four turn into nine with David Clarkson, Petr Sykora, Adam Henrique, Dainius Zubrus and Alexei Ponikarovsky. The Panthers have to prove they’re more than a one-line team of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg. The Devils are well aware of ex-Isle’s Sean Bergenheim’s drive. New Jersey can throw any of three lines against Weiss and win the big matchup, and win the next two, as well.
The Panthers believe their best chance is to exploit the Devils’ right defense of Marek Zidlicky, Mark Fayne and Peter Harrold. They will have to play tough and determined to hold off Florida’s attack. Meanwhile, the Panthers will need offense from Brian Campbell, Jason Garrsion and Dmitry Kulikov. They will be concentrating on stopping the Devils’ playmaking from the right side.
Martin Brodeur has brought his game back to star levels, and there may be one more upgrade left that would keep him playing on his 40th birthday on May 6. Former Devil Scott Clemmensen may be the better for Florida, but Jose Theodore is its man, and his right-handed glove will confuse shooters a couple of times, though that won’t be enough.
The Devils survived — and thrived — despite warnings that using their top forwards so heavily on penalty-killing would exhaust them. They set an NHL record with a kill rate of 89.6 percent, and Florida (18.5 percent) will have to solve them to even win twice. The Devils’ best forwards, however, did not produce a fearsome power play (17.2), though the Panthers’ penalty-killing was a movable object at 79.5 percent.
Pete DeBoer was fired by the Panthers nearly a year ago after failing to reach the playoffs in three years, yet led the Devils back after their first miss in 14 seasons. DeBoer hasn’t really made a mistake this season, and has jumped on problems as soon as they appeared. Rookie Kevin Dineen snapped that record Panthers’ drought, and did top Washington and Tampa to win the Southeast title.
This is where we see what this attack can do.
DEVILS in FIVE
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