Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Devils vs. Panthers. Dream It, Believe It.





 GAME DAY SONG: RUNNIN DOWN A DREAM-Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

  What a great feeling to finally type that headline!  The Florida Panthers will host their first playoff game since 2000, and they’ll be doing it as division champs as well.  What a glorious turnaround by the franchise in a very short time to land themselves in the position that they’re in today.  A 22 point improvement over last season, 13 new players, and a first year NHL coach all looked to be a mixture for medocrity at the season’s beginning.  The Florida Panthers however proved the pundits wrong all season.  While the Panthers were certainly streaky, the teams that finished behind them, specifically the Washington Capitals, had their chance to catchup.  They didn’t. Tonight the fun begins.  Buckle up kids.

Offence:  The New Jersey Devils have some very skilled offensive players in Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Zach Parise and Petr Sykora. This team can roll three solid lines all with the ability to score, as well as a fourth line to provide energy when needed.  Additionally let’s not forget about David Clarkson who scored 30 times this season, including seven game winners, and Adam Henrique who netted 16 as a first year player centering the third line for most of the season.  The team has three 30 goal scorers, and for a Peter DeBoer coached team, that’s something we aren’t used to seeing.  This group of forwards can bring it, and Florida will have to find a way to shut them down.  While Kovalchuk has been a Panther killer for most of his regular seasons, he’s not faired well at all during the playoffs against anyone.

The Panthers are going to have to get the FlashMob Line going again, and Kris Versteeg is the one that needs to get his scoring touch back.  This line will be looked upon to energize, and provide most of the offence for Florida.  If they are completely shut down, it could be a short series.  This will also be Stephen Weiss’s first time in the playoffs.  If there was ever a moment for him to step up his game, it’s now.  There is no way he can be average, and he must to find that extra gear for every shift.  I promise you he will be under my microscope more than ever during this series. The rest of the offense will need to chip in as well.  It would be glorious if Sean Bergenheim can have a playoff like last year when he scored nine goals in 16 games, and it will be additional support for the offence if he gets hot.  Tomas Fleischmann needs to remain consistent, and if the third and fourth line players work hard, the pressure comes off the FlashMob Line.  The Panthers averaged 2.5 goals per game during the regular season.  They must score at least three per game to win this series.  No exceptions.

 Defence: New Jersey’s defence is surely different from the days of Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer.  Those two were the perfect compliment for each other.  Today however the defence is lead by a collection of players who don’t really stick out.  Marek Zidlicky, Anton Volchenkov are the markee names, and young Adam Larsson are the names you’ll pay attention to.  These players aren’t flashy, not overly physical, but seem to get the job done.  This defensive unit doesn’t score much, either and therefore not presenting much of a threat offensively.

Brian Campbell was the primary acquisition for Dale Tallon last summer and for good reason.  While you don’t expect much defensively from Soupy, he’s the puck moving defencemen that stirs the drink here.  Both at even strength and on the power play.  He’s also soaked up a ton of ice time, and will probably continue to do the same here.  My hope is that he’s not been overused.  The rest of the unit needs to be steady every game, and keep New Jersey’s forwards to the outside forcing long shots.  However as I say that, they must also give whoever is in goal for Florida, a clear view of those shots.  Paying attention to detail, and not being sloppy or careless is crucial.  Lastly, the defence is going to have to be more physical.  Ed Jovanvski and Erik Gudbranson will need to bring the sandpaper and make life miserable and slow down the Jersey forwards.  I’d also like to see some physical play from Jason Garrison as well.

Goaltending: Martin Brodeur will go down in NHL history as one of the greatest goaltenders to ever play the game.  However the Panthers shouldn’t let that get in their heads, as this version of Brodeur is older, a bit slower, and is unable to handle the puck as much as he did in the past.  He’ll still flash some brilliance with an excellent glove, and positionally is one of the best.  However he can be beaten.  If you can create traffic, and crash the net, and take shots from close in, he can be had.  The key will be to consistently pressure him, and make him work hard.  He’s no spring chicken anymore, and the days of him facing only 18 shots a night are long gone.  That was the secret to his success long ago.  He’s been great in the past, he’s still very solid, but he’s not exactly what he used to be.

Who starts game one?  My money is on Jose Theodore for the simple fact that he’s the guy that got us here.  Sure, Scott Clemmensen did a masterful job in a backup role, it’s been Theo who’s carried the team most of the way.  Even though Jose has been erratic lately, his history this year is to follow that up with some stellar play.  That’s what I see from him now, and that’s why I expect him in goal.  Clemmensen has only appeared on one playoff game during his career.  No matter who is in net, as I mentioned peviously, the crease will need to be free of traffic.  Give our goaltenders the opportunity to see the puck, and make sure that any and all rebounds are quickly swept away and thrown into the corners.

Special Teams: The Devils have the number one penalty killing unit in the league.  They’ve also scored 15 shorthanded goals, so just because they’re on the kill, doesn’t mean they won’t take a chance offensively.  This can be a problem for Florida when they use a forward on the point and get caught in an odd man rush.  The last thing I want to see is Mikael Samuelsson or Stephen Weiss trying to skate backwards and defend Kovalchuk and Parise.  Their power play ranked 14th, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not potent.  Kovalchuk had 10 goals with the man advantage, and Elias and Clarkson had eight.  Skilled forwards with soft hands, and a nose for the net makes this group dangerous.

Believe it or not, the Panthers’ power play ranked 7th in the league this season.  A climb from 30th last season.  Jason Garrison had nine and Kris Versteeg had eight goals with the man advantage,  and that pace which has slowed down, will need to resume.  The Panthers will need to pepper Brodeur with shots from all angles, and keep him busy, while at the same time aviod being caught giving up any offensive chances.  The penalty killing unit has dissappointed this season finishing 25th.  The only thing to be said is that it must be better.  The Panthers will also need to be careful of their line changes, as they’ve been caught  a little too much for the too many men on the ice penalties lately.  This is not the time to make a careless line change.

Coaching: This will be the first time that Peter DeBoer will coach in the post season at this level.  This Devils team has veteran players with experience and Cup experience, DeBoer is going to have to rely heavily on them.  His tendencies to shorten his bench in tight situations will certainly be revealed, as I predict most of these games will be low scoring.  As the game wears on, DeBoer will rely on his top nine forwards and his top four defencemen.  While he may or may not have an axe to grind against the Panthers  who fired him after last season, he’s out to win.

It’s also the first time coaching in the post season for Kevin Dineen.  His energy and enthusiasm that guided the team during the season will be looked upon again during the playoffs.  He has no axe to grind against the Devils, so none of that emotional nonsense will get in his way of thinking.  He’ll roll four lines, but seems to shorten his bench like DeBoer when things get sticky.  Erik Gudbranson and a fourth liner or two typically get their minutes shaved.  Playing a player like that in these situations however gives them confidence, and hopefully they’ll get that chance.  You never know, this could be Big G‘s shinning moment.

Intangibles: The Panthers have a lot to prove if only because the media outside of South Florida has had a grand old time calling them the worst team to make the playoffs.  To that I say balderdash.  But if it gives the team a little extra incentive to prove the experts wrong, then so be it.  With the series opening at the Bank Atlantic Center, it is hoped that the Florida crowd who hasn’t seen a playoff game in 12 years will give the boys some extra energy to feed off of. As for the Devils, the Ex-Panther Factor potentially curse’s their performance.  Pete DeBoer, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier make this an interesting story line.

Prediction:  When it’s all said and done, this is the series that has the least sex appeal outside of the two cities.  The Devils are known in their history for trapping, and playing a boring defensive brand of hockey.  That’s changed slightly with DeBoer behind the bench,and with some of the players on the ice.  The Panthers meanwhile are this year’s cinderella.  Kevin Dineen has the players believeing in him, and they’ve bought into his system.  They must, and I repeat MUST avoid slow starts in order to prevail.  Florida has to stay out of the penalty box, and have their heads on a swivel when on the man advantage.  There can be no mistakes here as New Jersey will make them pay.  Remember this too, there are a few Panther players that played for DeBoer while he coached the Cats.  It’s been said that some of them didn’t enjoy playing for him while he was here.  There’s your motivation!  Panthers in 7.

Thanks for reading.  We welcome your comments and opinions.

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