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The Carolina Concern

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It became official with last night's results, as reported by the NHL, the New Jersey Devils will face the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round.  As of this writing, the only unknown is when the games will be played.  Nevertheless, this matchup is cause for concern.  A few days ago, I put up a What Do You Think regarding the then potential first round opponents: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Carolina.  Ironically, the Devils' 51st win of the season help ensure that what most didn't want to see - Carolina in the first round.  Not that either opponent would have been ideal (none of them are Montreal), but Carolina seemed to be least desirable.

Consider the following comments from said post.  Blez kicked things off well (as usual) but let me get to the cut of his jib here.  He even explains what he thinks - and I agree - what could be the big key in the series:

Carolina probably scares me the most because the Devils have had some epic failures against them.

...

The new NHL is a specialty team NHL now, even in the playoffs. Whoever probably has the best power play and best penalty kill will likely win, no matter who the Devils face. Ultimately, this would be my preference:

1. Philly
2. Pittsburgh
3. Carolina

I also think that the order in which I put them in reflects who has the best goaltending. Biron doesn’t scare me. Fleury scares me a little and Ward scares me a lot.

elesias concurred and added this about Carolina:

Both PA teams have the offensive ability to overcome their questionable goalie/defense to burn the Devils for not putting them away, and Carolina seems to be suddenly very balanced.

drhzhang also had this to say:

I agree with the consensus here, Philliy is my top choice, then Pittsburgh – I want nothing to do with Carolina. For whatever reason the Hurricanes have had our number for years and it seems to be largely the opposite with the Flyers (some of their fans will actually admit it if you happen to ever get into a docile conversation with them). The Pens have been just as solid as the Canes the past month but there defense is not as deep in my opinion, hence why they’d be the second choice.

To be fair, the  concerns over Carolina are warranted and not just because they finished the season 9-2.  Not just because the Canes went 3-1 against the Devils this season, the first season where Carolina won the season series since the lockout.  Not just because, as discovered by Mirtle, that Carolina went 20-8-2.   I'm not discounting them, those are very valid causes for concern.  It goes deeper than that, though.

Based on the Devils' playoff history at Yahoo!, the Devils have had trouble with Carolina in the playoffs.  New Jersey has faced Carolina in the playoffs only three times - and the Devils only won one series against them, back in 2001.  Overall, the Devils are 7-10 against the Hurricanes.  You can't even take solace in that Carolina went on to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002 and 2006 (and won in '06) after beating the Devils.  And the fans clearly haven't forgotten that - especially Game 2 where (if I recall correctly) Brad Lukowich, instead of mauling Eric Staal, just tried to converge in and saw the last second equalizer go in through Brodeur to force an overtime.   Had the Devils won that game, momentum would have shifted New Jersey's way instead of adding it further to Carolina.

That said, PeterB has an interesting theory that makes some sense. The road to the Stanley Cup isn't easy, so why not welcome the challenge and see if the Devils can rise up to it? The Devils have beaten all the elite teams save for Detroit this season, surely they can handle Carolina:

Sorry guys – I disagree. I think the Canes are the perfect first round opponent for a couple of reasons.
1. The Devils haven’t yet beat them this year.
2. They have lost to them in the playoffs in the past.
3. They have exited in the first round the last two years.
4. This team always seems to need a challenge and these three things should provide the motivation.
5. After the Canes it’s downhill to the CUP !

The only issue I have with this is that the Devils encountered this in the first round last season, where they drew a Ranger team that beat them 7 out of 8 times in the regular season.  As I saw it at the Rock and on TV, the Devils definitely did not rise to anything, much less to the occassion. 

But this team is different.  Truly, it is. The unhearlded defense is more experienced, the Devils actually have, get this, a productive offense, and Sutter has kept the line up fairly consistent instead of using a dartboard to choose his lines.  The team has a style of play and methods of attack that clearly have proven to be successful this season.

However, this success has understandably given rise to high expectations.  The Devils have not made it past the second round of the playoffs since 2003, despite strong regular seasons (or in the case of the 2005-06 season, a strong 2006).  Whether this season will be seen as a success has nothing to do with improved scoring or the rise of Zach Parise or the return of Patrik Elias or the wins of Martin Brodeur or the fill-in work of Scott Clemmensen or the comeback seasons of Jamie Langenbrunner & Travis Zajac or the importance of Paul Martin or any record being broken.   It'll be a success if the Devils achieve the goal Lou has for every season: to compete, contend, and ultimately win the Stanley Cup.  Getting knocked out of either of the first two rounds will go against that.

And so since the season did not end with comfortable victories, the worry is that they may crash out of the first round against a difficult opponent like Carolina (difficult for the previously mentioned reasons.) or they'll get knocked out in the second due to struggling with Carolina. That will be what the fans remember about the 2008-09 season.  That will be what the organization takes away from the season as they look to re-tool again.  It will be seen as disappointing season despite all the accomplishments the team has done, and it's unarguable, really. If anything the question will be, "How come they couldn't win the Cup if they've done so much?"

That concern isn't specific to Carolina, but given the past playoff history with the Canes as well as this season's games against them, it only makes it more powerful.  The Hurricanes aren't like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh with a rather obvious question mark; they truly are a well-balanced team that has played excellent hockey since the beginning or February. It's going to take consistently great performances to beat them - and that's not easy to ask of any team in NHL.

Honestly, I am concerned about the first round for these reasons.  But I still think the Devils have a pretty good chance in the first round.  I'll save those thoughts for tomorrow, though. I thank all the commenters to the initial post (blez, drhzhang, elesias, Bob Roberts, WhatWouldLouDo, Peter B, and don of central NJ) as well as all the commenters in general to ILWT.