April 17, 2012; Newark, NJ, USA; New Jersey Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov (28) and Florida Panthers left wing Sean Bergenheim (20) collide during the third period of game three of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals at the Prudential Center. The Panthers defeated the Devils 4-3 to take a 2-1 series lead. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE

Qtr. Final Game 4 Preview: Panthers vs. Devils: Take Control

Coming off what was most likely the best comeback story in the history of the Florida Panthers, game four is upon us with the actual possibility of coming home leading the New Jersey Devils three games to one.  What?  The possibility of clinching the series in Sunrise on Saturday in front of the home crowd?  Yes, it’s possible, but winning tonight must come first.  You can’t help but think that far ahead, but one thing at a time kids, as the Panthers will need to be perfect for 60 minutes tonight in an effort to gain control of this seven game series. 

While I don’t see the New Jersey Devils laying down for any reason, there are a few things that make me wonder if they have what it takes to come out hungry enough to even up the series.  For one, they shouldn’t have a goaltending issue and the choice for Peter DeBoer on who starts is a simple one.  Martin Brodeur who was pulled in what was his shortest playoff appearance ever, should get the start.  He fully expects it, and I’d have to think that Peter DeBoer runs the risk of “losing” the dressing room if he doesn’t.  Brodeur thinks he’s starting as well:

“I expect to play every game all the time, especially in the playoffs,” Brodeur said Wednesday after the Devils held an energetic one-hour workout. “It might not happen the rest of my career. But right now, until I don’t play, I expect every day I will play.

“I know what I can do and what I can bring and I will try my hardest all the time.”

In addition to naming his goaltender, it appears that DeBoer has been outcoached by Kevin Dineen at almost every turn.  From line matchups to motivating his troops, to adjusting to the dreaded trap, Kevin Dineen appears to be coaching like a seasoned veteran instead of a coach in his first year.  His pulling of Jose Theodore after the Panthers surrendered three quick goals in game three was probably the toughest call Kevin’s had to make all season.  Indicating that it wasn’t Theodore’s fault for falling behind, Dineen had basically two choices:  Call a timeout and calm things down, or replace Theo with Scott Clemmensen and send a message that the play of the Panthers was unacceptable.  Meanwhile as the Panthers began marching back and trimming the lead, I kept waiting for Pete to at least call a time out.  It didn’t come until late in the game, when it was virtually too late.  Coaching advantage to this point in the series goes to Dineen.

Once the Devils grabbed the 3-0 lead, they seemed to stop skating, and went into an early prevent defence.  The Devils also committed penalties and allowed the Panthers to score three goals on the power play, making them 6 for 10 in the series with the man advantage.  The Devils penalty kill was not only best in the NHL in 2011-2012, but they had the highest success percentage in the modern era.  They stopped attacking, became careless, frustrated and one one occasion a star player of theirs completely avoided contact.  Yep, Ilya Kovalchuk was going towards the boards for a puck when he turned his back at the right time, avoiding what would have been contact with a Panther player.  A very soft move from a top player like that sends a message….and it’s the wrong one if you’re trying to win a hockey game.  While this is the only series that hasn’t had any controversial play, Kovalchuk’s avoidance of playing the body is something that I would have a prolem with as a coach…..or teammate.

The Panthers meanwhile have to get the lead out early, and must avoid a slow start.  This has happened way too many times this season, and even though it’s exciting to know that they can come back from a three goal deficit, it’s not something they want to make a habit of.  With Jason Garrison and Brian Campbell providing offence, the Panthers benefitted from another night of tight forechecking, and a solid relief job by Scott Clemmensen.  They also quieted the New Jersey crowd with their comeback, which  I’m sure had an effect on the Devils game.  Kevin Dineen had some high praise for Clemmensen:

“For two months, Clem has been an excellent goaltender and one of the best of the league,” Dineen said. “He’s a hard guy to dislike. He has tremendous respect from our players and coaching staff. It’s certainly a tough decision to make, whichever way I choose. Theo wasn’t able to stop them early, but it all doesn’t fall on Theo. He’s been terrific all season.”

The Panthers have to play the initial minutes of the game with desperation, and set the tone.  The Devils will come out hard, as there’s no way that they want to head back to South Florida down three games to one.  However could you imagine that setup for Saturday night?  Meanwhile, as long as the Panthers move their feet, control the puck, and create traffic while maintaining a net presence in front of Brodeur, they’ll get their scoring chances.  I still feel that we need to be a bit more physical eventhough things seemed to have been working out in the end anyway.  Although when you look at it, we really could be up three games to none, but winning tonight puts us in the driver’s seat.

The Panthers would certainly be the surprise of the playoffs if they could take a commanding lead in this series.  Their effort when they have been good has been based on good old fashinoned hard work.  Grinding it out, winning the battles in the corners and controlling the  boards.  They’ve also maintained their composure and haven’t panicked.  That has been the story for them all season long, and you can most likely point to the champions in the dressing room as the reason.  Players like Campbell, John Madden, and Tomas Kopecky who are  all Stanley Cup winners, have added just the right amount of character, grit and calmness all at the same time.  Leading this team to where they are today.

A win tonight sends a significant message to the Devils and the entire NHL.  This isn’t your same old Panthers hockey team boys and girls.  Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, this team has earned the right to be where they are , and deserves to go as far as possible.  Just give them the chance.

Keys to the game:

* Play with high energy right from the start.  Don’t try to just survive the first 1o minutes, as this hasn’t been working.

* Stay out of the penalty box, not giving the Devils and advantage.

* Scott Clemmesen gets the start.  Allow him the opportunity to see the puck and make saves.  That was the problem for Theodore on Tuesday night.

* Make the Devils defencemen play the puck in their end, and at the same time maintain an agressive foecheck.

Patrik Elias seems to have lounge chair set up with beer and wings in front of the net.  That. Can’t. Continue.

* Maintain composure, stay focused, and play a full 60 minutes.

Thanks for reading.  We welcome your comments and opinions.

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Tags: Brian Campbell Florida Panthers Ilya Kovalchuk Jose Theodore Kevin Dineen Martin Brodeur New Jersey Devils Peter Deboer Scott Clemmensen

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