NEWARK NJ - FEBRUARY 04: Rostislav Olesz #85 of the Florida Panthers celebrates his overtime goal against the New Jersey Devils with his teammates at the Prudential Center on February 4 2011 in Newark New Jersey. Florida defeated the Devils 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Take a second to look at the picture to the right. How would you feel if that is what happens tomorrow? It could just be one goal. It could be the decisive goal in game one of the series. But that one goal could also be an overtime winner in game seven, then how would you feel? My guess: Enraged, upset, possibly hate the universe and blame anyone from Lou to someone who shaved their playoff beard early. Most Devils fans are on the high of a six game winning streak, myself included. As a reminder for those people, the scenario of Florida winning is not impossible.
Tomorrow the playoffs start for the New Jersey Devils. As we all know, the Devils soiled the bed and didn't make the playoffs last year. This year is different. This year the Devils have an entirely healthy Martin Brodeur. This year the Devils have a red hot Ilya Kovalchuk - Travis Zajac - Zach Parise line. This year they have a second line capable of scoring Petr Sykora - Patrik Elias - Dainius Zubrus. Along with rookie sensation Adam Henrique and breakout stud David Clarkson on the third line. This year the Devils have a solid defense with the unheralded Mark Fayne and top defensemen Anton Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador. This year they even have puck moving defensemen Marek Zidlicky and Andy Greene. This year the Devils play the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference, the Florida Panthers.
Everything sounds just dandy, doesn't it? The other writers and myself have the Devils winning in either five or six games. The odds in Las Vegas favor the Devils. Even a large majority of the pundits have the Devils winning: The Bleacher Report, Puck Daddy, Sports Illustrated, and all but one of the NHL writers/reporters/analysts. I did manage to find, on ESPN (The most knowledgeable hockey source), that someone has the Panthers winning.
So what does this all mean for the Devils? For the players, it means that they need to prepare like they are playing the New York Rangers or the Pittsburgh Penguins. If the players go in with the mindset that the Panthers are just a stepping stone to Round 2, they will be sorely mistaken. While the Panthers are certainly not the toughest team in the league, no playoff team is ever a cake walk. Being the 6th seed, the Devils should be thinking of themselves as underdogs or equals to the Panthers because they are going to give them a heck of a time if they don't take them seriously.
The coaching staff needs to prepare the team for a hard series. If they coach the game the Devils are used to playing, they will play fine. If the coaching staff changes things up, it could be disastrous. There will be a lot of emotion for Peter DeBoer, being that the Panthers fired him not too long ago. DeBoer is the leader of the Devils and needs to come out confident and clear-headed.. If DeBoer can maintain his cool, the players will respond to that and play their hearts out for him. DeBoer can always ask for advice from assistant coach, Larry Robinson. Robinson is no stranger to the NHL playoffs.
On the other side of the matchup, the Panthers are looking to win their first playoff series against the Devils. They were swept by the Devils in their only playoff appearance eleven years ago. (That year the Devils went on to win the cup) The Panthers know the Devils aren't to be taken lightly as the 6th seed and are well aware of their status as underdogs. And trust me, they love to win this series and prove to the pundits and the rest of the NHL that they need to be taken seriously.
The Panthers are also upset that they are overwhelming being picked to choke. They made a video as an outlet for their frustration. Just remember, every player that steps foot on the ice come Friday night is a professional athlete and winning is one of the most important things in their life. Some may say money is a factor too, but come playoffs, it's all about the cup. If you think you want your team to win it as a fan, the players have an even deeper drive to succeed.
The Panthers also have home ice advantage, which can always help give a team the edge. The Panthers will come out with the mindset that they are playing a team equal or better than them. If the Devils decide to come out and play relaxed, they will lose.
It is only a seven game series, not an 82 game season. It only takes one game to sway momentum in the series. I hope the Devils realize that and come out playing their hardest. Otherwise it could be a dismal spring for the Devils and their fans.