The New Jersey Devils are back in the playoffs. After the Devils missed it entirely last season, it feels good to actually have a vested interest in the postseason once again. Of course, fans of the Florida Panthers have to feel even better. This will be their first postseason since the 2000 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, where the Panthers lost to the Devils in
five four games.
Will history repeat itself? Well, not exactly. That first round series was twelve years ago and a lot has changed since then, including an entirely new contract bargaining agreement. But could we see the Devils get past the first round since 2007? Possibly. At least, we hope so considering the Panthers are arguably the most favorable match-up they could get out of the(they struggled but they still have ace players that can cream a team), Boston (creamed the Devils all season long), and Pittsburgh (creamed the Devils twice with Crosby back).
As we wait for Game 1 on Friday night, I asked the writers of In Lou We Trust to give their predictions for the upcoming first round series. I asked them five questions, with the fifth being a straight-up series prediction with winner. In my recent look back, we did pretty well with our 2011-12 regular season predictions. Based on what we think, I can only hope we're right on the important matters once again. Please continue on after the jump to see what we think of the upcoming first round series against Florida and who will win.
What one thing about the New Jersey Devils that makes you confident in this series?
Tom: The Panthers wont be able to capitalize for SH and fourth line goals against: in the panthers victories against the Devils earlier in the year, the Panthers capitalized on the Devils via SHGs and taking advantage of opportunities against the Devils' fourth line. With the addition of Marek Zidlicky and lesser use of the fourth line in the playoffs, the Panthers wont have these opportunities in the playoffs.
Kevin: Superior forward depth. The Panthers offense comes from mainly from Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss, and Kris Versteeg. After them the main offensive contributors are mainly defensemen: Brian Campbell, Jason Garrison and Dmitry Kulikov. Of course, the Devils can use the Patrik Elias line to stop their big three. However, the Panthers don't have a great answer to Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk unless they want to match their big line against the Devils' big line. I'd say Alexei Ponikarovsky, Adam Henrique and David Clarkson are better than any of the Panthers third liners, and I'd probably say both teams have an equal fourth line.
Matt V.: Scoring Depth. This year's Devils have five 20-goal scorers and three 30-goal scorers. They have three lines that can score and battle along the boards. Time of possession in the offensive zone should result in goals.
Matt E.: The thing that makes me most confident about this series is that the Devils are on fire heading into the playoffs. They have won six games in a row and have everyone meshing together at the perfect time. The Devils are 7-2-1 in their last ten games while Florida is a meager 2-3-5 in their last ten.
John: Most of my confidence in the Devils heading into this postseason is that they are having far better luck now that they have had since April 2010. In the first round against the, the Devils shot at around 2%. In the following season, the Devils shot at around 6% until they got hot enough to get closer to 7%,which still placed them last in the NHL. This season, the team has been shooting around league average (8.5%) which has really helped them get to 102 points in the standings this season. Their offense has actual depth in production now, so if they can generate shots on net, then they'll get the goals needed to stay in games if not win them outright.
(Aside: I want to note that my answer to this question matches-up with what Travis Hughes asked me for this Monday SBN-NHL post.)
What one thing about the Florida Panthers worries you in this series?
Tom: Scott Clemmensen: I hate paying against goalies who do well against the Devils and Clemmer worries me. We all know the Devils make mediocre goalies look like Vezina candidates, and I worry he can steal the series if he plays over Jose Theodore.
|2011-12 - Scott Clemmensen||30||1566||14||6||6||67||2.57||773||706||.913||1|
Kevin: They're an annoying team to play against. They're kind of like the Wild in that if they have a lead, they're going to turtle and trap and hang onto that lead because they don't have much in the way of offense. The difference is that they don't allow nearly as many chances. The Devils do have the firepower to break through. However, if the team puts up an uninspired 18 shot performance, then they're probably not going to break through.
Matt V.: Scott Clemmensen. We all know him, and he's 4-0-0 with a 2.05 GAA and 0.937 SV% against New Jersey. He's good against his former team. That scares the heck out of me. He has no playoff experience, but someone has to start somewhere.
Matt E.: One thing that worries me about the Panthers: Their defense could become hot and shut down the Kovy-Zajac-Parise line. If they get stifled the Devils may fall flat.
John: Kris Versteeg has been a thorn in the Devils' side in the four games against the Devils this season with five goals. They've mostly quelled Fleischmann, who has only one goal on nine shots against New Jersey this season. Weiss has picked up three assists but he too has only scored one goal on five shots (a shorthanded goal). That's not a lot of shots and goals from two-thirds of their top line. Yet, Versteeg has five goals on nine shots. While I doubt he'll get a shorthanded breakaway or get left alone in front, he's my #1 target for the Devils to stop. If he can't be contained, then the Devils will have a much longer and harder series on their hands.
|2011-12 - Kris Versteeg||71||23||31||54||4||49||8||1||5||181||12.7|
What's the key matchup between the two teams?
Tom: The key matchup in this series is the defensive pairing vs the Cats top line. Kris Versteeg and many of the other goals generated against the Devils this year by the Panthers were the result of bad plays by the Devils defenseman. I'd prefer seeing Bryce Salvador & Anton Volchenkov out there against the Stephen Weiss line if possible. Their defensive style would result in more sound positioning and puck clearing against that unit.
Kevin: The key matchup is Elias, Petr Sykora and Dainius Zubrus versus the Panthers' second line, which is probably going to be Mikael Samuelsson, Marcel Goc and Shawn Matthias. Weiss and Versteeg are two of the Panthers best defensive forwards; and with home ice advantage, Kevin Dineen is going to try and get them up against Kovalchuk's line. This would mean the Devils second line doesn't have to face their best players, and should be able to beat average defensive players in a head to head matchup
Matt V.: The Devils' penalty kill versus the Panthers' power play. Florida's 18.5% PP efficiency is pretty good. Can they score against the all-time best PK unit? Can the Devils' PK unit clog up the zone and create some shorthanded opportunities?
Matt E.: The key matchup is who Peter DeBoer chooses to play against the Weiss line. If the Devils can mange to shut that line down, they will win the series.
John: Whoever gets matched with the Weiss line. If the Devils can out-right win that match-up, great. But they don't need to so much win it as much as they need to limit the Weiss line. If they give the Weiss line enough pressure such that they struggle to get set up on offense and keep their attack to a minimum, then that will open up the Devils' chances for success particularly for the Devils lines not matched against the Weiss line.
Who's the X-Factor in this series?
Tom: The X-factor to me is the guy the Panthers haven't seen yet in a Devils uniform: Marek Zidlicky. Zidlicky will help the second and third line generate chances in the offensive zone to create that secondary scoring the Devils need. Zidlicky will also help keep the opportunistic Panthers penalty kill honest since he handles the puck well.
|2012 w/ Devils - Marek Zidlicky||22||2||6||8||0||10||2||3||1||20||10.0|
Kevin: New Jersey: I'd go with Zajac. He's looking much better since his return from injury. Plus, having a center who can win faceoffs will be huge.
|2011-12 - Travis Zajac||15||2||4||6||-3||4||1||0||1||25||8.0|
|2011-12 - Dmitry Kulikov||58||4||24||28||-5||36||2||0||1||104||3.8|
Matt V.: Bryce Salvador. He's been one of the best defenders on the team this season, playing all 82 after missing last season. He's not too good with the puck, but he's been shooting more (and hitting the net, he has thrre or more shots on goal in four of his last eight games). If he can play like he does in the defensive zone and create some rebounds with shots from the point, it will do wonders for the forwards.
|2011-12 - Bryce Salvador||82||0||9||9||18||66||0||0||0||52||0.0|
Matt E.: The X-Factor for the Devils: Martin Brodeur. If he can play to the level we know he is capable of, the Devils will cruise through the series.
|2011-12 - Martin Brodeur||59||3392||31||21||4||136||2.41||1472||1336||.908||3|
The X-Factor for the Panthers: Tomas Fleischmann needs to show up and score on a consistent basis to lead the Panthers through the first round.
|2011-12 - Tomas Fleischmann||82||27||34||61||-7||26||6||0||4||217||12.4|
John: David Clarkson can definitely be the X-factor. We know he's a shot machine. We know he's had an incredibly productive season with 30 goals. We know he's got swag on the ice to the point where we call them Clarkarounds and Clarkdrags. He's not going to face the toughest competition on the third line and he's still the center-man on the Devils' first power play unit. If he can continue his impressive production into this series, then he will directly help his team by scoring, indirectly help them by taking some of the heat off the top two lines, and directly give Florida some real match-up issues.
|2011-12 - David Clarkson||80||30||16||46||-8||138||8||0||7||228||13.2|
What is your series prediction?
Tom: Devils in 6
Kevin: Devils in 6
Matt V.: Devils in 6. They win every home game. The Rock will be at its loudest ever. Parise and Kovalchuk will average a point per game. The NHL will see that the Devils are real contenders after this series.
Matt E.: Devils in 5. The Devils are coming in hot but may drop one of the games on their way to the second round!
John: Devils in 6. All of the games will be close, but I think the Devils will come out on top.
Now you've read our answers to these five questions, please let us know what you think of what we said. What answers of ours do you agree with? What don't you agree with? I also want to know your answers to the same questions we answered for this post. What one aspect about the Devils make you confident in their chances? What about the Panthers worries you the most? What match-up will be important? Who will be the X-factor? Most of all, what's your prediction for this series? Please leave all of your answers and other predictions in the comments. Thank you for reading. One more thing: A big series preview post will come out tomorrow. Until then, predict away.