What we all want to see tonight - one more time and while wearing the road white jerseys. (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
The Time: 8:30 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+ (Local), NHL Network, NBC Sports Network (Joined in Progress, TSN (National); Radio - 660 AM WFAN
The Last Game: The New Jersey Devils hosted the Florida Panthers in Game 6 on Tuesday. Down 3-2 in the series, it was a must-win game for the Devils. They came out shooting and kept up the attack throughout the game. The Devils ended up out-shooting the Panthers 36-13 in regulation and 42-16 including overtime. Yes, this game went into overtime. The Devils went up early with a turnaround shot by Steve Bernier getting through Scott Clemmensen's legs in the first period and they doubled their lead when Ilya Kovalchuk scored on a backdoor play during a second period power play. The Panthers equalized relatively quickly thanks to Kris Versteeg firing a shot in the slot through traffic past Martin Brodeur and Sean Bergenheim potting in a loose puck off a four-on-two rush. The Devils were the better team in the run of play, but Clemmensen and some close misses ensured the game would go beyond sixty minutes.
Overtime did not last long as a defensive stop turned into a rush up ice that ended up with Travis Zajac firing one low to the right post. It was a great goal, especially when broken down. The Rock erupted in cheers and the Devils got extra life in this series with a 3-2 overtime win. My recap of the victory can be found here; while Ryan Meier has this recap for Litter Box Cats.
The Viewing Party: The Devils are hosting their viewing party at the Fire Lounge inside the Prudential Center. Fill out the form at the team's website and you can go watch it in style - it is a very nice lounge.
The Additional Motivation: I know the players likely didn't read it (and I don't know if they should) and I did write this intended for Game 6 which explains all the references to Game 5. Yet, I think most of this pre-game motivation post for the players still applies for this game. You did it once Devils, now do it one more time.
The Goal: Win. I don't care who on the Devils makes it happen, I don't care when the Devils make it happen, and I especially don't care how the Devils do it. Win.
For an opposition's point of view, please visit Litter Box Cats. For more thoughts on this game, please continue on after the jump.This is without a doubt the most important game of the season for the Devils. The Devils win and they will move onto the second round. The Devils lose and they go home until preseason starts in September. The Panthers are in the same situation. That in of itself makes this game harrowing. There are no second chances. It all comes down to one game.
One could argue they have more to play for than the Devils. Sure, the Devils can and should be confident to a degree since they won Game 6 in overtime and they know they can perform with their backs up against the wall. But consider this game from Florida's point of view. This is the first playoff series the Panthers have played since 2000. They won their first playoff game since 1997 in this series. They're on the brink of winning their first playoff series since 1996. They got this far, this game is in their house, they have the last change, and they had the lead in this series twice. You can be sure the Panthers players aren't going to just settle for getting to a Game 7; they're going to come out hard.
And I think they will attack much more than they did in Game 6. I highly doubt Kevin Dineen was pleased with the 16 shots Florida put on net in Game 6. Yes, the Panthers matched the Devils goal-for-goal in regulation and game went into overtime; but getting out-shot 42-16 is no way to win hockey games. It's clear that Florida will continue to play defensively; they've done it in the last six games. They're not going to risk the Devils hitting them on an odd man rush; Panthers skaters will drop back in coverage to defend regardless of whether it's Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise or Alexei Ponikarovsky and Adam Henrique on the ice. That said, I would expect more offensive chances being taken by the Panthers. If they can get the puck in deep and win the puck, I can foresee them firing the puck more. I'd expect more to come from the line of Stephen Weiss, Versteeg, and Tomas Fleischmann which has been mostly quiet at evens in this series. I'd expect more out of Sean Bergenheim, who went from a storming 7 shot night in Game 5 to a mere 2 in Game 6 (though he did score on one of them). More offense from them would keep the Devils back in their own end at a minimum and ideally get some more chances and finish them. I'd expect Dineen to make that part of his game plan for tonight's game.
The Panthers could benefit from the return of Jason Garrison. The Panthers have missed his heavy shot and defensive capabilities since Game 4. According to this post by the Miami Herald's David J. Neal at On Frozen Pond, Garrison will be a game-time decision. If he can keep it together, then I'd expect him to play. He'd have to be significantly injured to miss a Game 7. Even if he's not at 100%, it's another player the Devils have to be mindful of when he's on the ice. He only needs one well-placed shot to create a killer rebound, get a killer deflection, or act as a straight-up killer.
That Panthers will likely benefit with the return of Jose Theodore in net. He shut out the Devils in Game 5 and bizarrely scratched in Game 6. According to Neal's post at On Frozen Pond, it's still unknown what's wrong with him. However, Theodore did practice on Wednesday and Dineen did say that if he's available, then he'll be in net. I would think that would be a big boost to the Panthers since his last appearance was a shutout against New Jersey. The Devils' gameplan for him should be similar to what they did to Scott Clemmensen: barrage him with shots. I expect the Panthers to be much tighter defensively; I don't think the Devils will put as many shots on net as they did in Game 6. Still, they need to make a point of it to generate offensive pressure, keep striving to generate chances even if they go astray, and to fire when a good look is available.
As for the Devils, Tom Gulitti reported on Wednesday at Fire & Ice that Peter DeBoer will make no changes to the lineup. The same 18 skaters and Martin Brodeur that started each game of this series will start this final game of this playoff series. While it wasn't perfect, I think it's uncontroversial to say that the Devils played a very good game of hockey in Game 6. I highly doubt they'll control the puck as much as they did tonight; but I want the Devils to build on what they did on Tuesday. That means they have to succeed as a team. They have a lot to consider.
Consider the offense. The third line of Ponikarovsky, Henrique, and David Clarkson hasn't produced much. Tonight would be a great night to get on the board as a unit. The second line of Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora, and Dainius Zubrus was great in possession but they weren't as offensive as they could be and they had an easy match-up on Tuesday. They'll get a tougher one tonight; but I'm holding out some hope that Elias connects on more passes, Sykora fires better shots, and Zubrus wins more pucks. The big line of Kovalchuk, Zajac, and Parise have put up some goals and plenty of shots; they need to continue what they've done in Game 6. The fourth line has provided actual energy and a few goals; it would be awesome if either Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter, or Steve Bernier can do it again. The defense has fired their fair share of shots on net, and it would be to New Jersey's benefit for Marek Zidlicky, Andy Greene, and Mark Fayne to do so when they got an open look from the point. Again: everyone has to contribute.
Consider the defense. 16 shots allowed is a very, very good result for any team; as is a big disparity in Corsi and Fenwick. Even Anton Volchenkov wasn't terrible. I expect Florida to attack more. This means the Devils have to be aware of trailing Panthers off the rush. The defensemen need to pick their positions and stick with them and rotate as necessary down low. The forwards need to consistently and effectively backcheck to help out the defense. The Devils have been mostly good in their own end in this series; they just need to keep it up - and to do it cleanly.
Consider the discipline. The Devils only took one penalty in Game 6. While the Devils mostly avoided doing anything stupidly obvious, they benefited from referees who were willing to let the players play. It cannot be guaranteed how the refs will call Game 7. I fear they will be more particular. All I request from the Devils players is that they shouldn't explicitly foul a Panther unless it will prevent a dangerous scoring opportunity or a goal. The Devils PK has become less leaky as this series has went on, but gifting the Panthers power plays is a recipe for disaster.
Consider the goaltender. Martin Brodeur has been here before. He's had his ups like all of Game 4. He's had his downs like the second goal against in Game 5 or the third goal against in Game 2. He's been everywhere else. I'm confident Brodeur will do what he needs to do to keep the Devils in it. I'm also aware that any goal against will cast blame on him, deserved or otherwise. I just hope the skaters don't leave him out to dry and give him enough goal support throughout the game.
I know I'm painting it like the Devils need to play a perfect game. I know that's just about impossible. I know some players may be hurt to varying levels of severity on their games; and yet I know I'll expect them to be positive contributors tonight. I know some players may have had less-than-good performances in this series; and I know I will forget about all that with a good performance tonight. I know some players may have dug deep internally to put out a great performance in Game 6. I know it'll be hard for the Devils to come off a big win in a must-win game to get their minds right for another must-win game. I know the Devils missed the playoffs last season, and just making it makes 2011-12 far better than 2010-11. I know that there's no reason for the Devils to get this far and then be immediately content with a first round loss - even if the Devils play a good Game 7 and just don't get a result. I know at this point I want the Devils to play into May and as far as they possibly could. I know that the Devils have generally been the better team in 5-on-5 throughout this series. I know that doesn't matter in this one game. I know that a game can be decided by sheer dumb luck: like an unfavorable bounce or a deflection out of nowhere - that alone just frightens me given that this is a must-win game. I know everyone's on edge partially because of that and partially because it's the playoffs. I know everyone's focusing on whatever particulars stick out to there, myself included, and we all could stand to be a bit more understanding. I know we all want the same thing right now regardless of whether we are the most optimistic Devils fans, the most pessimistic, or somewhere in between. I know that I could have just linked you all to the Game 6 preview and say: do it again in Sunrise. I know there will be a handshake line at the end of this game.
I do not and could not know what will actually happen. I can only hope. We can only hope.
To reiterate: the Devils just have to win tonight's game. Win just one game. They just have to be the better hockey team tonight. They don't need to be great, just greater than Florida. If they can consider all I've brought up and repel the Panthers, then I think they have a great chance to do it. But again: anything can happen in this game. I must go back to one more point: They have a decision between Death and Glory again. Once again, they must choose Glory.
And once again, there's only one relevant question to ask: Will the Devils win tonight's game? Please leave your answer and other thoughts for tonight's game in the comments. Once again, I hope this won't be the last time I say: thank you for reading. Please go out there and win, Devils.