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Surprising Panthers face Devils in opening round

By Staff

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Surprising Panthers face Devils in opening round
While the surprising Panthers are most reliant on netminder Jose Theodore, Ilya Kovalchuk hopes to shoulder the load for the Devils this postseason.


Seed: 338-26-1894Pts.


Seed: 648-28-6102Pts.
This series is rife with storylines.

First-year New Jersey coach Pete DeBoer is looking to knock off the Florida panthers< the team that fired him two seasons ago. Meanwhile, Florida forward John Madden is trying to beat the team with which he had most of his Stanley Cup Playoffs success.

It is New Jersey's record-setting penalty kill against Florida's prolific power play. It is a team that amassed more than 100 points and finished the season strong with a six-game winning streak in New Jersey against a team that won just two of its last 10 games and struggled to the finish line.

It is about New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur perhaps having one last chance to author and unforgettable springtime story and for Devils star forward Ilya Kovalchuk to finally come up big in the postseason. It is also about Florida forward Stephen Weiss finding a reward for a decade of service with his first-ever playoff game.

Regardless of the storylines, however, this series will be about the game on the ice and these teams had an entertaining regular-season series, splitting the four games. Florida took the first and final games, while the Devils won the middle two games. New Jersey outscored Florida 12-11 in those four games.
Florida lacks a truly elite player up front, but the Panthers also have four lines capable of contributing offensively.

The trio of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg was among the best in the League in the early part of the season, but Fleischmann was the only of the three who was a consistent threat down the stretch, finishing with 27 goals and 61 points. Weiss, who has been with this team since 2001, finished with 57 points and Versteeg, who won the Cup with Chicago two years ago, had 54 points.

Second-line left wing Sean Bergenheim came up big in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for Tampa Bay last season with nine goals in 16 games, and he had that kind of hot streak (eight goals in 12 games) again in the regular season before finishing with 17 goals.

When David Clarkson connected for his 30th goal late in the season, it marked the first time since 2000-01 that New Jersey had at least three players reach the 30-goal mark.

Ilya Kovalchuk surpassed 30 goals for the ninth time in his career, finishing with 37 and captain Zach Parise did it for the fifth time in six seasons, finishing with 31. The last 30-goal threesome for the Devils featured Alexander Mogilny, Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora.

Coach Peter DeBoer has been tinkering with his lines to find those right combinations ever since Travis Zajac returned from a foot injury on March 25, and it appears as though he may have struck gold. The only constant this season has been the trio of Elias centering Sykora and Dainius Zubrus. Slotting Zajac between Parise and Kovalchuk at some point in every playoff game will certainly sicken opposing coaches.

Rookie Adam Henrique, who saw time between Parise and Kovalchuk this season, has proven his versatility by playing between Alexei Ponikarovsky and Clarkson. The hard-checking fourth line, which will include Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier, has provided quality minutes all season and an added breather for the top scorers.
The Panthers have a nice mix of established veterans and up-and-coming players on the blue line.

The key figure clearly is Brian Campbell, who has made a huge difference in his first season in Florida. Campbell starts a lot of the offense with his skating and passing, and he’ll play in all key situations. He finished the year with four goals and a team-best 49 assists.

Jason Garrison broke the Florida record for goals by a defenseman this season, with 16, thanks in large part to his powerful slap shot. Nine of Garrison's goals came on the power play. Dmitry Kulikov also contributes offensively.

Veterans Ed Jovanovski and Mike Weaver are more defensive-minded, while Erik Gudbranson steadily improved throughout his rookie season and might be the most physical player on the team.
Even without veteran Henrik Tallinder, who missed the final 37 games of the regular season with a blood clot, and rookie Adam Larsson, who was a healthy scratch on occasion late in the season, the Devils finished with 209 goals, a number bettered by just two teams in the Eastern Conference.

Bryce Salvador, who missed all of last season with a concussion, has played every game of 2011-12 and might very well be regarded as the club's unsung hero on defense while averaging more than 20 minutes a game. Anton Volchenkov has been the physical force general manager Lou Lamoriello envisioned when he acquired him last season, topping the team in hits and blocked shots.

Andy Greene and Mark Fayne, who were regularly paired together, were consistently effective. In fact, Fayne has really developed into a mainstay along the blue line for New Jersey in his second season, producing career highs in assists, points, hits and blocked shots. The acquisition of defenseman Marek Zidlicky on Feb. 24 has helped ease the workload on the back end, too, particularly with the man advantage.

Larsson struggled during the past month of the season after being injured on a hit from Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban on Feb. 2 and returning from the subsequent injury.
Of all the pleasant surprises for the Panthers this season, the goaltending has perhaps been the biggest, as Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen have formed a strong partnership.

After a one-year stint in Minnesota, Theodore has re-established himself as a bona fide No. 1 goalie, posting some of his best numbers since his Hart Trophy season of 2002. Theodore won 22 games, posted a 2.46 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage.

Clemmensen was tremendous as the backup, coming up with several clutch performances in the second half of the season, including earning the win in the final day of the season to clinch the Southeast Division title.

Coach Kevin Dineen said throughout the season that Clemmensen made his goalie decisions tough, and that will include picking a Game 1 starter against the Devils. Whoever it is, though, the Panthers will need him to deliver.
Barring a serious injury, Martin Brodeur will be the man this postseason.

The NHL's all-time leader in games played, wins and shutouts notched the 14th 30-win season of his career and the first since 2009-10. Brodeur's next playoff win will be No. 100 of his career, and despite the fact he hasn't advanced past the first round since 2006-07, Brodeur still sports a 2.01 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in 181 career playoff games.

Hedberg has proven to be a more than capable backup this season. In fact, despite playing his fewest games since 2006-07 with the Atlanta Thrashers, "Moose" established a career-high in shutouts with four.


In his first year as an NHL head coach, Dineen took a reconstructed Florida team and guided it to its first playoff berth in 12 years.

During his long playing career, Dineen’s best asset very well might have been his toughness and grittiness, and that’s how his team played.

While the roster was greatly improved with all of GM Dale Tallon’s offseason moves, Dineen deserves credit for getting the most out of his players and also overcoming a series of injuries.

Dineen’s teams reached the Eastern Conference Finals in the American Hockey League twice during his six seasons in Portland.

In three seasons as coach with the Florida Panthers from 2008-09 through 2010-11, DeBoer couldn't get past the regular season. In his first with the Devils, he did.

He took on a team that finished dead last in the League with a 2.08 goals-per game average in 2010-11 while possessing just one 30-goal scorer and one 20-goal scorer. He was able to get the team to generate offense and take advantage of Kovalchuk's tremendous offensive drive while not sacrificing strong defensive play. The Devils finished among the League's top five in fewest shots allowed per game.
Special Teams
A season after having the worst power play in the NHL, the Panthers finished in the top half this season, clicking at an 18.5 percent efficiency.

A large part of the credit goes to Campbell, who recorded 30 assists with the man advantage. The power play also is where Garrison’s slap shot really has come into play. Garrison rotates at the right point with veteran forward Mikael Samuelsson, and when Garrison is on the ice, the Panthers try to set him up for one-timers.

On the flip side, the Panthers have seen their penalty killing take a major dive this season. One of the few things they did well in a forgettable 2010-11 season, the Panthers finished sixth in the League this past season in killing penalties. They were in the bottom third in the NHL this season, killing just 79.5 percent of their opportunities, despite the presence of penalty-killing specialists like Marcel Goc and John Madden.

The Devils were the most dangerous team while shorthanded this campaign, connecting for a League-leading 15 goals while down a man after scoring just five last season. The franchise record for shorthanded goals in a season was 18, set in 1987-88. The club finished the season No. 1 on the penalty-kill with its record 89.6 percent success rate -- a statistic that could play a major part of a significant push in the playoffs.

Ironically, however, the Devils also allowed the most shorthanded goals as their power play was mediocre at best, connecting at a 17.2 percent success rate.

Series Changer

Kris Versteeg, Florida -- The speedy forward was on his way to a 30-goal season before a hip injury derailed him, and he really struggled after returning to the lineup. But he started becoming an offensive threat again in the past two weeks of the regular season and he’s got the grit needed to produce in the playoffs. Versteeg had six goals in 22 playoff games for Stanley Cup winner Chicago in 2010, and that was in a complementary role. He’s now in a top-line role with the Panthers and really could make an impact.

David Clarkson, Devils --  Clarkson, a classic power forward, has a game perfectly suited for the postseason. He plays a north-south game and is heavy on the puck, generating the majority of his chances through a willingness to initiate or absorb physical contact. His penchant for the big hit often sets the tone for this Devils team.

What If ...

Panthers will win if … Jose Theodore comes up big. The Panthers simply don’t have the offensive firepower to score a lot of goals in the tight-checking playoffs, so they can’t afford to give up soft goals. On the contrary, Theodore likely will have to steal a couple of games if the Panthers are to have success in the postseason.

Devils will win if … Brodeur can rekindle some of that playoff magic in what could be his curtain call in a Devils jersey, and if Kovalchuk can continue what he started in the regular season.

Analysis by Alain Poupart and Mike Morreale

Quote of the Day

It's a big milestone for me and I'm happy to help my team with lots of good teammates. It's fun.

— Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, who on Wednesday became the ninth Russian-born player, and ninth Red Wings player, to score 300 NHL goals
World Cup of Hockey 2016