Devils finish road trip against first-place Panthers
Sunday, 11.20.2011 / 6:32 PM
David Kalan - NHL.com Staff WriterDEVILS (10-7-1) at PANTHERS (10-6-3)
TV: MSG PLUS, FS-F
New Jersey 6-4-0; Florida 5-2-3
This is the first meeting of the season between Florida and New Jersey. The teams split four meetings last season with the Devils winning the final showdown, a 2-1 victory at BankAtlantic Center on Feb. 27, 2011.
The Panthers are in an unfamiliar place -- at the top of the Southeast Division. It's been a remarkable start of the season for the team with the League's longest playoff drought, and Florida will be tested to keep the good times rolling as it hosts the Devils, who are heating up as they come into town. And the Devils bring with them head coach Pete DeBoer, who is making his first visit to Florida since the Panthers fired him this past offseason.
After missing the postseason last spring for the first time since 1996, New Jersey is suddenly starting to heat up, and a few elder statesmen might be the reason why. Patrik Elias
, the Devils' all-time leading scorer, is on pace for 82 points, which would be the 35-year-old winger's highest output since his career high of 96 11 years ago. In addition, Martin Brodeur
seems to finally have his feet back under him after returning from injury. In his last five games, Brodeur has four wins and has given up as many as three goals just twice in that span.
As a result, the Devils are lingering just outside the top eight and have won six of their last eight games. Monday's stop in Florida will be the conclusion of what has been a very impressive five-game road trip. New Jersey has picked up wins over Washington, Buffalo and Tampa Bay on the swing and if the Devils can get two points in the home of the Southeast Division leaders, it will be a nice flight back home Monday night.
The last time Florida reached the postseason, Pavel Bure led the team in points and Bill Clinton was still in office. If the Cats are looking to end a playoff drought that has stretched beyond a decade, they're certainly off to a good -- and surprising -- start. Florida has relied on a potent mix of young talent accumulated by general manager Dale Tallon to bring life into the franchise, and not only have the new pieces been working -- Kris Versteeg
, Brian Campbell
and Tomas Fleischmann
are all averaging close to a point per game, if not more -- but the Panthers are suddenly in first place in the competitive Southeast.
The perennial Cup-contending Capitals and a Lightning team that reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season are both looking up at Florida, which has won four of its last six games. What's more is that the Panthers are a mere two points behind Pittsburgh and Philadelphia for the top spot in the East, and after opening a four-game homestand with a 2-1 win against Pittsburgh Saturday night, the Cats aren't just picking up points. They're showing they can play with the big boys.
Who's Hot: David Clarkson
has been a key cog for New Jersey for several seasons, but his goal-scoring prowess had never been the reason why. With goals in three straight games, perhaps he's trying to change that. … Versteeg has continued humming along on an impressive season, tallying 9 points in his last five games.
Injury Report: Jose Theodore
is likely to be in net for Florida with goalie Scott Clemmensen
questionable due to a knee injury. Marcel Goc
is also questionable with an upper-body injury. … The Devils should be healthy with the exception of long-term injury absences for Travis Zajac
(Achilles surgery) and Jacob Josefson
Florida's early season success is impressive, but it can be easy for many to assume that lucky breaks have been had here or there and the Cats will fade. A look at their goal differential implies a different story, however. The Panthers' plus-8 differential is the fifth best in the Eastern Conference -- a better figure than Washington's, Tampa Bay's, Buffalo's or Toronto's.
Most of the skeptics will assume that Florida is due to come back to earth at some point, but with the way the team has produced, that return to terra firma doesn't seem to be coming any time soon. With visits from the Rangers and Tampa Bay coming later on the current homestand, the Panthers have a chance to reaffirm their legitimacy from the comforts of their own arena.