After years of playing one of the most defensive brands of hockey anywhere, the New Jersey Devils built a reputation as a low-scoring team that won by shutting down the opposition more than anything else.
To assume that will be the case heading into their first-round series with the Hurricanes would be a mistake.
The Devils scored 244 goals this year, which is their highest total since they led the league with a whopping 295 in 2000-01. Although this season’s total still only ranks 15th overall, players like MVP candidate Zach Parise (45 goals - third most in the NHL), Patrik Elias (31) and Jamie Langenbrunner (29) give New Jersey some legitimate firepower.
“I think that their approach hasn’t changed, but their players have,” said Hurricanes Coach Paul Maurice. “Their top two lines have more speed and probably more of an offensive mindset than at any time I can remember.”
Carolina, which some might think of as the higher-octane team, actually finished with five fewer goals than their upcoming opponent. New Jersey has more 20-goal scorers with five (Travis Zajac and Brian Gionta have exactly 20 apiece), while Carolina has four, although Erik Cole (18) and Chad LaRose (19) came close to joining Staal, Whitney, Tuomo Ruutu and Matt Cullen in that group.
The point of this analysis isn’t to suggest that New Jersey’s underrated offense will make this a wide-open, high-scoring affair - far from it. The seemingly even match combined with each team’s responsible, structured style of play will probably make it the opposite. Three of the four head-to-head meetings this year were decided by one goal, the other by two, with an average of less than five total goals per game.
“In the playoffs it’s always tight, low-scoring one-goal games, and we’re sort of used to playing that way,” said Sergei Samsonov. “Hopefully we’ll draw some experience from our regular season and go on to have some success in the playoffs.”
That aside, each team has players that can quickly capitalize on mistakes and opportunities. With goals expected to come at a premium, the series may come down to which team has more of those players.
That’s why the performance of Carolina’s third line, currently featuring Rod Brind’Amour, Samsonov and Scott Walker, will be crucial. If that unit keeps playing the way it did down the stretch, the Canes will have the advantage in offensive depth. All three of those players are capable of scoring 20 goals, but slow starts and injuries – now firmly in the rearview mirror for each player - prevented that from happening this season.
In the four-game season series, Brind’Amour led all Carolina players with six points (all assists), while Samsonov finished third with four points (3g, 1a).
“It’s always nice to have a scoring balance, especially in the playoffs,” said Samsonov.
As has been the case all season, the Canes should also get some offensive help from their defense, led by Anton Babchuk, whose four goals against New Jersey were the most of any Carolina player and the most he scored against any NHL team.
Babchuk actually finished the season tied for fifth among NHL defensemen in goals scored, and is only the fourth blueliner in franchise history to score 16, a feat not accomplished since Zarley Zalapski racked up 20 for the Hartford Whalers in 1991-92.
(Side note: when the season started, did you ever think Babchuk would be the first player mentioned in a story about the team's offensive weapons on the power play?)
If Babchuk and company continue their pace from the regular season, the Hurricanes should have a clear advantage in that area. Carolina had four defensemen with at least 30 points (Joe Corvo, Babchuk, Joni Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg), while the Devils had just one in Paul Martin.